Nikola founder Trevor Milton indicted on fraud charges

Milton allegedly lied about 'nearly all aspects' of the EV business.

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CEO and founder of U.S. Nikola Trevor Milton attends a news conference held to presents its new full-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell battery trucks in partnership with U.S. Nikola, at an event in Turin, Italy, December 3, 2019. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca
Massimo Pinca / Reuters

Trevor Milton, the founder and former executive chairman of electric vehicle company Nikola, has been charged with two counts of securities fraud and one count of wire fraud by a federal grand jury. Milton has been accused of lying about “nearly all aspects of the business” to boost Nikola's stock.

The indictment claims Milton made it seem Nikola was much further along than it actually was in terms of having fully functional EVs. It asserts he had a hand in creating a video that made it seem a Nikola One prototype was able to move by itself when it was actually rolling down a slope.

Milton falsely claimed the company had “billions and billions and billions and billions” of dollars worth of preorder reservations and that the company was producing its own hydrogen at four times less than market rates, according to the indictment. He's also accused of falsely claiming that Nikola had developed "game-changing" battery technology, that it was developing and making several key components for its EVs in-house and that "the total cost of ownership of Nikola's trucks was 20-30 percent below that of diesel vehicles."

Prosecutors claim Milton, who resigned in September in the face of a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) probe, targeted and misled amateur investors (or "retail investors"). According to the indictment, some of those investors lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At Nikola's peak valuation, Milton held around $8.5 billion worth of stock, as CNBC notes. The grand jury argues that Milton should surrender property “traceable to the commission of said offenses.” That could include the over $1 billion Milton made when the company went public in June 2020.

Milton pled not guilty to the charges in a Manhattan court on Thursday. He was released on a $100 million bail bond. A judge imposed travel restrictions on Milton, who has been banned from contacting investors.

The SEC also filed civil securities fraud charges against Milton on Thursday. The agency asked a district court to force Milton to forfeit "ill-gotten gains" and to pay a fine. It also called for a lifetime ban on Milton serving as an officer at a company that issues securities.

Update 7/29 3PM ET: Added details about Milton's court appearance.

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