Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The founder of an electric truck company is expected to face significant prison time when he is sentenced on Monday in a fraud case that highlights the financial carnage left behind by a crop of electric vehicle start-ups and their promoters.

A federal judge in Manhattan will sentence Trevor Milton, the founder and former chief executive of the truck company Nikola, after a jury found him guilty last year of one count of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud. Mr. Milton was accused of pumping up the value of Nikola stock by making extravagant claims about the company.

Mr. Milton told investors that Nikola had working prototypes of emission-free long-haul trucks, had billions of dollars’ worth of binding orders and was producing low-cost hydrogen fuel. All those statements were false, said prosecutors, who have asked the judge to hand down an 11-year prison term and a $5 million fine. Lawyers for Mr. Milton, who denied the charges, asked that he be sentenced to probation.

Few electric vehicle executives have been convicted of crimes, but Nikola was hardly the only new auto company to attract billions of dollars of investment without generating profits or producing many cars or trucks, leaving shareholders with huge losses.

Inspired by the success of Tesla, investors poured money into start-ups like Canoo, Lordstown Motors, and Lucid Motors in recent years. Their backers and executives viewed electric vehicles as a chance to challenge established automakers like Ford Motor and General Motors and become rich in the process.

With far fewer parts than gasoline cars, electric vehicles should have theoretically been easier to manufacture. But building thousands of cars, establishing brands and meeting safety standards turned out to be much more difficult and costly than many start-up executives and their backers expected. Some businesses proved more adept at generating lawsuits than cars.

Many of the electric vehicle start-ups listed themselves on the stock exchange by merging with special purpose acquisition companies, which allowed businesses to avoid much of the disclosure and regulatory scrutiny that accompany conventional initial public offerings of stock.

Investors who bought these stocks have suffered enormous losses. Shares in Nikola, which is still in business but warned investors in November that it could run out of money in the next 12 months, have lost 99 percent of their value since 2020.

One group of investors profited — short sellers, who make money by betting that a stock price will decline. Firms that specialize in exposing overvalued stocks feasted on Nikola and other electric vehicle start-ups.

Mr. Milton’s false claims about Nikola were first reported by Hindenburg Research, an investment firm that specializes in uncovering corporate malfeasance.

Hindenburg also published a report on Mullen Automotive last year that accused the company of marketing electric vehicles imported from China as its own and claiming it was close to offering advanced solid-state batteries, a technology that much larger companies like Toyota are still years away from perfecting. Mullen shares, which peaked at more than $3,600 in 2020, traded recently for 13 cents.

A Mullen spokesman said that “many of the points in Hindenburg were inaccurate at the time, and now dated, which renders all completely inaccurate now.” In recent news releases, Mullen has said that it has begun manufacturing electric trucks at a factory in Mississippi.

Another Hindenburg target was Lordstown, a would-be electric truck maker that took over a former G.M. plant in Ohio with help from the Trump administration. President Donald J. Trump hosted Lordstown’s chief executive, Steve Burns, at the White House in 2020, calling the company’s vehicle “an incredible concept.”

Mr. Burns resigned after Hindenburg accused him of exaggerating the number of orders for Lordstown’s pickup truck. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in June. (In October, an investment vehicle Mr. Burns controls bought machinery and other Lordstown assets.) Lordstown declined to comment.

Mr. Burns said in an email that he never inflated orders, and noted that a study by an outside law firm had found inaccuracies in the Hindenburg report. He bought Lordstown’s assets and hired some of the company’s engineers, Mr. Burns said, because he believes that the business has unique technology.

Short sellers have also targeted Faraday Future, a company based in Los Angeles that has so far delivered nine of its “ultra-luxury” electric vehicles after a decade in business.

After J Capital Research, another short seller, published a report on Faraday in 2021, the company admitted that it had misled investors when it claimed to have 14,000 reservations which in fact were unpaid expressions of interest.

In September, Faraday said in a regulatory filing that its “corporate culture failed to sufficiently prioritize compliance.” The company has also disclosed that it is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice.

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