NEW YORK (AP) — The fate of Nikola Corp ’s founder will be in the hands of a jury after he was portrayed Thursday in closing arguments by a prosecutor as a habitual liar, and by his lawyer as an inspiring visionary being unjustly prosecuted.
Trevor Milton, 40, has pleaded not guilty to securities and wire fraud. In 2020, he resigned from the company he founded in a Utah basement six years ago.
Deliberations will begin Friday in the Manhattan federal criminal trial, after it was delayed for over a week after Milton’s lawyer tested positive for the coronavirus.
In closings Thursday, defense attorney Marc Mukasey urged acquittal, saying there was “a stunning lack of evidence” that his client ever intended to cheat investors.
“The government never proved fraud,” Mukasey said. “There were no crimes here and Trevor Milton is not guilty.”
In 2020, Nikola’s stock price plunged and investors suffered heavy losses as reports questioned Milton’s claims that the company had already produced zero-emission 18-wheel trucks.
The company paid $125 million last year to settle a civil case against it by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Nikola, which continues to operate from an Arizona headquarters, didn’t admit any wrongdoing.
In his closing rebuttal argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky insisted the evidence was overwhelming that Milton lied repeatedly to make it seem Nikola had produced operable trucks fueled by hydrogen gas and that the company had billions of dollars in contracts when they didn’t exist.
Podolsky said Milton wanted to get rich and learned that he could dupe investors into supporting Nikola through lies, like when he claimed Nikola had built its own revolutionary truck that was actually a General Motors Corp. product with Nikola’s logo stamped onto it.
Another example was when he sped up the video of a truck rolling down a hill to make it seem like the company had developed a fully functioning truck when it had not, the prosecutor said.
“The lies. That is what this case is about,” Podolsky said.
He said Milton went on television news programs to tell his lies and tweeted them as well.
Podolsky told jurors not to accept Mukasey’s explanations for his client’s behavior, including arguments that Milton had the support of the company’s board of directors and was not warned by anyone to stop conveying his enthusiasm for Nikola publicly.
“This is the robber blaming the guard for not stopping him,” he said.
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