Trevor Milton lied to investors again and again to make the electric truck company he founded, Nikola Corp., look better than it was, a prosecutor told the jury in his criminal trial.
“This is Trevor Milton,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos told the jurors in his opening statement Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan. “He repeatedly lied to investors about his company, and he made a billion dollars by doing so. He started a company that was supposed to make zero-emission trucks, and he lied about all the important parts of the business.”
Milton did it “to lure innocent investors into buying more of his company’s stock,” Roos said.
It didn’t take long for Roos to get to the details of a 2016 event at which Milton unveiled the debut version of what he said was a hydrogen-powered truck. Roos said the truck was missing key parts and had never been functional. The symbol for hydrogen was stenciled on the side even though there was no fuel cell in the vehicle.
Bloomberg first reported on the missing components in June 2020.
Milton faces securities fraud and wire fraud charges, and a maximum prison term of 25 years if convicted of the most serious charge.
No 'bad boy renegade'
In his own opening, defense attorney Marc Mukasey put the dictionary definition of “distortion” on the courtroom screens. He told the jury the allegations twisted the truth and that all of Milton’s statements about the company were given accurately and appropriately but -- crucial to the defense -- weren’t material to investor decisions to buy the stock anyway.
“This is a prosecution by distortion,” Mukasey told the panel. “A distortion of Trevor Milton’s words, a distortion of Trevor Milton’s meanings, a distortion of Trevor Milton’s intentions. The government says Trevor misrepresented facts when he spoke about Nikola. That’s a distortion. The truth is that all of the facts were fully and accurately disclosed to anyone who wanted to invest in Nikola.”
Mukasey argued that investors had access to important, accurate information through the company’s website and other publicly available documents. He conceded that Milton was keenly interested in the stock price, adding that was “absolutely true” -- and normal for an executive.
“Trevor wasn’t some bad boy renegade rebel out there on some criminal mission,” Mukasey said. “He was out there because all of Nikola’s leaders were out there. He was part of the company’s marketing plan,” to “tell the world about the cutting-edge, cool” designs it was offering, and he “was flat-out stoked about what it was doing, and he wanted to tell the world.”
‘Attacked’ by shorts
Mukasey also told the jury Nikola had been “attacked” by short sellers.
“In this case the short sellers made a big secret bet that Nikola’s stock would go down,” he said. “They tried to push Nikola’s stock down. They tried to force it down by publishing a report, but it was really just an article that was intended to kill Nikola’s stock price so the short sellers could make money. Think of it as short and distorted.”