NEW YORK -- Trevor Milton, the founder of electric truck maker Nikola Corp., has been indicted on charges of making false and misleading statements to investors, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Thursday.
The indictment said that, from November 2019 to September 2020, Milton schemed to defraud investors into buying Nikola shares through statements about the company's product and technology development.
Milton resigned in September 2020. His lawyers released a statement saying their client is innocent.
"This is a new low in the government’s efforts to criminalize lawful business conduct," the statement said.
Milton, 39, pleaded not guilty at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Manhattan to two counts of securities fraud and one count of wire fraud over statements he made from November 2019 to September 2020 about Nikola's products and technology.
Authorities said Milton relied on a public relations blitz of social media posts as well as TV and podcast interviews to drive up Nikola's stock price, become one of the world's 100 richest people and "elevate" his stature as an entrepreneur.
"Milton lied about nearly every aspect of the business," U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss in Manhattan said at a news conference. "Today's criminal charges against Milton are where the rubber meets the road."
Bail for Milton was set at $100 million, partially secured by two homes the Oakley, Utah, resident owns.
Each criminal count carries a maximum prison term of 20 or 25 years. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed related civil charges.
Federal prosecutors and regulators have been investigating Milton for months.
“Milton sold a version of Nikola not as it was -- an early stage company with a novel idea to commercialize yet-to-be proven products and technology -- but rather as a trail-blazing company that had already achieved many groundbreaking and game-changing milestones,” according to a separate complaint filed Thursday by the SEC.
Last September, Hindenburg Research said in a paper that it was short-selling Nikola stock and labeled the company a "fraud" -- a charge it denied.
In November, Nikola said it received grand jury subpoenas related to the matter.