A federal jury returned a guilty verdict against Trevor Milton, posing the possibility that the billionaire founder of the zero-emission truck maker Nikola could spend up to 20 years in prison, Courthouse News Service reports. New York-based prosecutors accused Milton, 40, of using his social media presence and frequent television appearances and podcasts to repeatedly dupe amateur retail investors as his startup company was set to go public. Jurors deliberated for five hours after a month-long trial before finding Milton guilty of one count of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud. The jury acquitted Milton of the top count, securities fraud, which is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said the verdict means that, "to anyone who plays fast and loose with the truth to get investors to part with their money. It won't end well." Federal prosecutors say that Milton lied repeatedly to represent that Nikola had manufactured operable trucks fueled by hydrogen gas and that the company had billions of dollars in contracts when they didn't exist. The government showed jurors a video released by Milton that showed the Nikola One prototype cruising on the highway. The government's first witness, former Nikola contractor and engineer Paul Lackey, testified that the truck was not operational, and was moving due to gravity.
Milton's defense attorneys insisted that Milton was using good faith and had no intention of deceiving anyone about the company's trucks or technology. After a September 2020 report by Hindenburg Research said Nikola's success was "an intricate fraud," Milton voluntarily stepped down as executive chairman of Nikola and a member of its board. He was indicted a year later but has remained free on $100 million bail secured by properties he owns in Utah. The company paid $125 million to settle a civil case against it by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Peter Hicks, an investor who testified, said that Milton's trumped-up statements about Nikola's prospects in March 2020 induced him to take millions of dollars in Nikola stock options as partial payment from Milton for a 4,600-acre ranch in Utah. Hicks, a Massachusetts-based real estate investor, testified he had purchased the property that month for $6.8 million and netted over $3 million in profit from a deal after selling his Nikola shares. In September of that year, Nikola's stock price plunged and investors suffered heavy losses as reports questioned Milton's claims that the company produced zero-emission 18-wheel trucks.