"Trevor Milton is a con man."
With those words, the U.S. launched its closing statement in Milton's trial on Thursday, as the government worked to seal its case against the Nikola Corp. founder it claims defrauded investors with breathless hype about the electric truck maker.
"He lied on Twitter, he lied on podcasts, he lied on TV interviews, he lied to Peter Hicks directly," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Estes told the federal jury in Manhattan, referring to a real estate investor who accepted millions of dollars in Nikola stock options as partial payment for a ranch. "Lie after lie after lie. His lies may have been on social media, but make no mistake, this was an old-fashioned fraud."
Estes told the jury Milton's lies were spread across clear categories: Nikola's progress in hydrogen fuel, the status of the company's Badger pickup, the functionality of its debut semi truck, the state of its order book and what he told the real estate investor.
Milton, 40, was upbeat as he arrived at court in a navy suit and took a seat with his lawyers. There were at least two dozen people in the courtroom, with Milton's family and friends packing the first two rows behind the defense table.
Milton is charged with two counts of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud, in a case that comes as the Justice Department works to crack down on corporate crime. He faces the possibility of years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors argue that he enticed individual investors to buy Nikola shares by making false statements about the company's products and capabilities in numerous interviews on podcasts and TV.
Milton's lawyers call the case a "prosecution by distortion," contending that their client never meant to deceive potential investors and that, in any case, his statements weren't material, or important enough to influence those investors' decisions.