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Lawyers for the former boss of hydrogen truck start-up Nikola have argued he should spend no time in prison after being convicted on three counts of fraud, saying he “sees the world differently than most other people”.
The filing on Tuesday said that a sentence of probation “will allow Trevor to stay home with his family and serve his community”, noting his wife is ill. He is due to be sentenced on November 28.
In the filing, Milton’s lawyers asked the judge to “resist any temptation” to compare his actions with those of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, another once high-flying start-up founder who was convicted of fraud.
“Where others see darkness, Trevor sees light,” the lawyers wrote. “Where others see despair, Trevor sees hope. Where others see impossibility, Trevor sees possibility. Where others see problems, Trevor sees solutions.”
A jury convicted Milton, 41, of three counts of fraud in October 2022. Each count carries a maximum sentence of between 20 and 25 years in prison.
His hydrogen truck start-up, which listed during a blank-cheque boom, was once valued at $30bn, more than Ford. But the share price plummeted following allegations of fraud.
During the five-week trial, prosecutors called Milton “a conman” who used his gains from Nikola to buy property in the Caribbean and a private jet.
In the court filing, Milton’s lawyers said that the former chief executive “never did anything to hide what he was doing or saying”, created no “phoney” documents and did not “lie to his accountants, auditors or lawyers”. They added that many of the statements Milton made were inspired by his “deep emotional connection” to Nikola.
Because of this, “any misstatements [he] made were the product of his deeply held optimism and belief in Nikola, rather than any sinister motive or intent to harm retail investors”, they said.
Milton was “raised in the American West . . . more skilled with cattle and horses than with regulators and investors”, lawyers wrote. “Before this case began, he had been to New York City for no more than a few days in his entire life.”
His “lack of corporate and financial sophistication” prompted him to ask Nikola’s chief financial officer to phone the Nasdaq exchange on the day of the company’s stock market listing to ask if it was “broken”, because the stock had fallen, they added.
Yet Milton’s lawyers claimed the strategy to have him publicly promote the company was “conceived and endorsed” by more “sophisticated” board members: Jeff Ubben, the founder of activist hedge fund Value Act, which had invested in Nikola, and former General Motors executive Steve Girsky. Ubben has since left Nikola’s board and ValueAct, while Girsky became Nikola’s chief executive in August.
Milton’s lawyers said his “punishment began a long time ago”, and that he experienced “enormous pain” from media coverage of his arrest and a podcast series examining his time at Nikola.
“The very status of ‘convicted felon’ therefore delivers a significant blow, and inflicts a major punishment in this case — more than sufficient to satisfy the statutory requirements,” they added, pointing out that as a convicted felon he would not be allowed to own a firearm — “a serious deprivation for a life-long hunter/outdoorsman”.
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