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Lawyers Insist Nikola Founder Shouldn't Face Prison Time for Fraud

They argue his fraud conviction is nothing like what landed Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes in prison.

Trevor Milton, left, leaves the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, Sept. 12, 2022, in New York.
Trevor Milton, left, leaves the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, Sept. 12, 2022, in New York.
AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File

NEW YORK (AP) — Lawyers for the founder of truckmaker Nikola Corp. say he should not face incarceration because his fraud conviction is nothing like the fraud that landed Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in prison.

The lawyers told a Manhattan federal court judge in a filing late Tuesday that Trevor Milton never acted in a "greedy or mean-spirted way" as he built a pioneering company looking to take the battery- and hydrogen-electric trucking world to new heights.

"There is not a shred of evidence from trial or from Trevor's personal life that he was ever motivated by spite, nastiness, ill will, or cruelty," they wrote.

Milton, 41, was convicted last year of fraud for duping investors with exaggerated claims about his company's production of zero-emission trucks.

Holmes, 39, is serving an 11-year sentence for defrauding investors in the blood-testing company Theranos.

Milton is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 28. Court officials have calculated federal sentencing guidelines to recommend between 17 1/2 years and 22 years in prison, although Milton's lawyers object to the calculations, saying they substantially overstate the seriousness of the crimes.

"Unlike Holmes, Trevor never put Nikola's customers at risk, whereas Holmes touted and used blood-testing technology that she knew to be unreliable, thus putting human beings at medical risk," the lawyers said.

They said Holmes also duped her own board of directors in addition to lying to investors.

"In contrast, whatever Trevor may have done, he did it openly and with the full knowledge of Nikola's executives and board of directors. There were no fake documents or financial shenanigans, and there were no threats to anyone to keep quiet," the lawyers said.

In seeking leniency, Milton's lawyers wrote that Milton has suffered enough after he was the subject of an episode of CNBC's "American Greed" and after being the focus of podcast by The Wall Street Journal entitled "The Unraveling of Trevor Milton," along with news reports, including by The Associated Press.

They said Milton had also been subjected to "shocking and unspeakable harassment online" and had lost some of his closest friends and colleagues, including those who helped him create Nikola.

"Trevor has been ousted from the very community he created. His reputation is in tatters. The result has been depression and loss for Trevor," they said.

They urged the sentencing judge to resist comparisons to the prosecution of Holmes, noting that Nikola remains a "real company with real products that employ proven technologies."

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.

At trial, prosecutors said that Nikola — founded by Milton in a Utah basement six years earlier — falsely claimed to have built its own revolutionary truck when it had merely put Nikola's logo on a General Motors Corp. product.

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.

Lawyers for Holmes did not immediately comment. Prosecutors were expected to submit sentencing arguments next week.


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