Nikola Truck Scandal Has Trevor Milton Facing Whistleblowers

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Conflict or crisis
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Priority
Release date
September 14, 2022

Trevor Milton looked like the next Elon Musk—and may end up the next Elizabeth Holmes. As the first of his several trials gets under way, the people who exposed him reveal how it all went down.

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Illustration: Martin Groch for Bloomberg Businessweek

Bob Simpson crouched and waited for his cue. When the silk sheet finally slipped off the truck, the engineer scurried behind the curtains, crawled underneath the stage, and plugged in the power cord. The Nikola One prototype, a colossal red-white-and-blue semitruck, lit up, prompting hundreds of investors to clink their Champagne glasses and take videos with their phones. “Oh, that thing is so awesome,” said Trevor Milton, Nikola’s chief executive officer, with the controlled energy of a youth pastor. As he paced back and forth on stage at Nikola Corp.’s Salt Lake City headquarters, rubbing his hands, he almost did sound like he was pushing a new religion. “We’ve been waiting so long to show this to the world,” he said. “You have no idea. It’s hard to even contain.”

Simpson and his business partner had been contracted as engineers to design and build the prototype’s electric drivetrain. Simpson was excited to be working on a vehicle that had long been considered a clean energy white whale by investors, environmentalists, and the industry as a whole: a mass-produced hydrogen-electric hybrid freight hauler that would have far more range than a Tesla and could be refueled in about the same amount of time as an internal combustion model.

But he soon realized the job wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling as he’d imagined. He’d mostly be connecting batteries he’d built himself at home to Nikola’s truck. Then, about halfway through his eight-week contract, he began to suspect he was brought in to make something that only looked like it worked.

That feeling was confirmed earlier on the day of the big reveal—Dec. 1, 2016—when Milton held an all-hands meeting and made clear that no Nikola workers were allowed to talk to investors about the truck at the after-party. Simpson also noticed a new stencil on the prototype, a big “H2.” As far as he knew, there wasn’t even hydrogen technology in the building, never mind in the project he’d been working on for the past two months. When a Nikola executive asked him to plug in the prototype on stage, he was so shocked that he went along with it, he now says. “I was kinda smiling, but I was kind of gritting my teeth and thinking, ‘What is going on here? This is just too weird,’ ” he says.

As the governor of Utah climbed onstage, Simpson says he felt simultaneously proud and embarrassed. After all, he’d built most of a good drivetrain with the few resources he’d been given. He could have flown home early, but he wanted to stay and see what would happen—what Milton could possibly say about a project that wasn’t even close to completion. Still, he was taken aback when Milton told the audience that the truck was fully functional, running on hydrogen fuel cells.

After the presentation ended, Simpson wove through the crowd trying to read his co-workers’ faces to see if they were just as freaked out as he was. But true to the instructions they’d received, no one said anything. Simpson drank a glass of wine, picked at some catered barbecue, and left for the airport.

By 2020, Milton’s narrative about the five-year-old truck startup had metastasized into a frenzy. The former door-to-door salesman had parlayed the prototype into a deal with a special purpose acquisition company, which gave Nikola new status as a publicly traded entity with a market capitalization bigger than Ford Motor Co.’s. On paper, he became the 188th-richest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. General Motors Co. announced plans to take a $2 billion stake in the company. Milton appeared on CNBC that March to explain that his plan was to make not only trucks, but also the hydrogen fuel cells that powered them, and a network of 700 stations where drivers could refuel those cells. Billionaire investor and Nikola board member Jeff Ubben sat next to him and called it the “next $100 billion company.”

Then, in June 2020, just weeks after Nikola went public, Bloomberg News published a story about Milton embellishing the Nikola One’s capabilities. A few months later, a short seller named Nate Anderson of Hindenburg Research produced a devastating report on Milton and Nikola, describing entrepreneurial hubris, investor exuberance, and echoes of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Milton’s criminal trial, for two counts of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud, began on Sept. 12. He contests the charges. Milton’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, said in his opening argument that the case was “a prosecution by distortion” and Milton was a victim of short sellers. “The truth is that all of the facts were fully and accurately disclosed to anyone who wanted to invest in Nikola,” said Mukasey. After the US Department of Justice’s case is decided, a civil complaint brought by the US Securities and Exchange Commission will go to trial.

In the years leading up to the SPAC, Milton had been known to make frequent appearances at Nikola’s headquarters—relocated to Phoenix—with his dog. But after the company went public, he no longer came around posing his favorite question to his 400 employees: “Y’all havin’ fun?” The answer was, many were not. Former Nikola engineers told me they spent their days doing mind-numbing and sometimes dubious work, like connecting off-the-shelf converters and then, as alleged in the Hindenburg report, covering their labels with masking tape to make them look proprietary. But they didn’t dare question what Milton was asking them to do—many had quit previous jobs and relocated. If it turned out they were working on a mirage, as some suspected, it might haunt their careers.

Meanwhile, Milton was posting YouTube videos about his wife’s wine cellar and off-roading adventures. When he rang the Nasdaq Stock Market closing bell in a virtual ceremony marking Nikola’s SPAC listing in June 2020, Nasdaq’s chief client officer remarked that Milton’s “people and culture reflect[ed] the virtues of American entrepreneurism.” And Milton’s improbable ascent did represent a version of the American dream. He grew up Mormon in a two-stoplight town in southern Utah, got a GED diploma, went to college to meet girls and learn how to socialize, and left after a semester. “I didn’t even [graduate college], because I wanted to pay people to do my homework. That’s what real CEOs do,” he once said on Instagram Live.

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Milton at a Nikola event in Turin, Italy, in 2019.

He started his first company, which sold home security systems, in 2004, at the age of 22. Two years later he sold it to a man who later said Milton misrepresented the financials, according to CNN. (Milton denies this allegation.) But he’d barely scratched the surface of his entrepreneurial desires. By 2019, Nikola had unveiled plans for five vehicles, including a personal watercraft, an all-terrain vehicle, and an all-electric semi called the Tre. The company announced in the fall of 2020 a strategic partnership with GM to build an electric pickup called the Badger. It’s unclear what motivated GM: Maybe it was Tesla FOMO, maybe it was that a former GM executive had helped Milton take Nikola public. (A representative for GM declined to comment for this article.) Either way, the deal helped elevate Milton’s place in the automotive industry cosmos, putting him right up there with Elon Musk.

While Simpson, the engineer instructed to plug in the truck, had no interest in becoming a whistleblower, in the weeks immediately following Nikola’s SPAC listing, his business partner decided it was finally time to speak out. Paul Lackey set up a Twitter account—@InsiderNikola—to push back against Milton’s story. He teamed up that summer with Hindenburg’s Anderson, along with Mike Shrout, a former business partner of Milton’s, and attorney Mark Pugsley, to file a whistleblower complaint with the SEC. Two days after the GM partnership was announced, Anderson’s firm published his explosive report, accusing Milton of repeatedly lying to investors and possessing no proprietary technology of his own.

The YouTube commentariat jumped on the case, deeming Nikola a shell of a company that painted its own logo on preexisting auto components. That September, investors filed at least three class-action lawsuits against Milton, who stepped down from his executive chairman role and deleted his Twitter account. Then came sexual assault accusations made by both his cousin and a teenage former employee. (Milton told CNN he denies these allegations.) Nikola stock plummeted 50% by October. The SEC, the Postmaster General, and the Justice Department started investigating. In late November 2020, GM dropped its plan to take a stake in Nikola.

Milton called Anderson’s report a “hit job for short sale profit driven by greed.” It’s true that an activist short seller has a financial interest in Nikola’s failure: Both the criminal and civil cases sprang from the whistleblower complaint. If the verdict of either trial requires Milton to pay fines and penalties to the agencies, all the whistleblowers stand to make millions. That could mean an additional windfall for Anderson, who already took an aggressive short position on Nikola before essentially tanking its stock with his report.

Milton declined to talk to Bloomberg Businessweek for this article, citing rules of the Southern District of New York, which is prosecuting the criminal case. But he says the whistleblower allegations are untrue. “Your email is full of false information that has been given to you, and we can’t comment on anything until after trial,” he replied to Businessweek in an email. Once the case closes, he says, he is “happy to respond to every one of these [claims] and set your record straight.” In an interview with Bloomberg News in July 2020, Milton stated emphatically that he hadn’t exaggerated claims about the truck. “I never once ever told anyone that the Nikola One was powered by fuel cell,” he said. “It was not a pusher [an inoperable vehicle].”

The story of Milton’s stage-prop truck is, by this point, legendary in certain corners of the retail investing internet. But what happened afterward, revealed here for the first time with exclusive interviews, is a tale at least as rich, or at least as weird: aggrieved left-brain types and an activist short seller accusing a Silicon Valley-style billionaire of lying and stealing. According to the whistleblowers, some of Milton’s alleged attempts to dig up dirt on them are as ridiculous and half-baked as the fraud he’s been accused of; others are simply baffling. As John Scott-Railton, an internet security researcher who’s been dragged into the saga, puts it: This “campaign is a mixture of well-done and ham-fisted. It’s one of the least technologically sophisticated cases I’ve ever investigated—and that’s what makes it interesting.”

Mike Shrout had every reason to think he could make lots of money. It was the late Aughts, the cost of diesel had just spiked, and his home state was full of natural gas wells. A self-taught product designer, he’d just figured out a way to convert diesel engines out of his garage in St. George, Utah. He could make one run on compressed natural gas for four or five grand a pop, a no-brainer for anyone who spent a lot of time on the road, which was basically everyone who lived in a town hemmed in by the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin, hours away from the nearest midsize city. He quit his job running a truck accessory shop out of a strip mall, put up a giant sign, and waited for the dollars to pour in.

He’d also figured he’d never again lay eyes on the guy he knew from the door-to-door alarm system company that operated a couple of doors down from his old gig. But one day in 2009, while working out at the gym, Shrout ran into the fast-talking salesman, Milton, who was wearing street clothes. “The more I think about it, it wasn’t a chance encounter,” Shrout says.

Milton asked Shrout to convert his late-model pickup to a hybrid, then suggested the two go into business together. They verbally agreed on their roles for a new venture called dHybrid, in which they would share equal ownership. Shrout would furnish the drawings of his engine while Milton would provide marketing acumen and connections.

Shrout wasn’t sure he could trust Milton, but he was desperate for money. He told Milton he could file a provisional patent application on the pair’s behalf, but filmed a video of himself explaining the situation and documenting that the drawings were his. The next day, Nov. 24, 2009, Milton began setting up the company and issued 1 million shares to himself. There was just one problem: He didn’t have enough knowledge to actually fill out the patent application. He asked Shrout to look it over and provide a technical review. That’s when the product designer saw that Milton had taken his drawings and credited himself as the sole inventor. Shrout slipped his name in as co-inventor and sent the application back to Milton’s attorney.

Shrout says Milton agreed to issue him 50% of dHybrid’s shares, but there were always excuses for why the process was taking so long. In 2010, when Milton secured a $2 million development deal to convert 10 trucks with Swift Transportation Co., a shipping company in Phoenix, Shrout says he still didn’t have any shares. According to Shrout, Swift’s executive team was blown away by his design—it would save the company 61% per mile if it were implemented into its fleets. (Swift declined to comment.) Milton promised Shrout an eventual million-dollar payout if he signed an agreement transferring all ownership of the intellectual property to dHybrid. Shrout signed.

But he continued being so hard up for cash, he couldn’t afford to drive to the office he and Milton had rented and worked on the engine prototype in his driveway. Milton, meanwhile, upgraded his house, boat, and truck—and also started spending almost $100,000 per month to advertise his side business, a classifieds site called uPillar.

Finally, Shrout refused to do any more work until he received his shares. Milton acquiesced, but then issued 5.5 million additional shares to uPillar on the same day, thereby diluting Shrout’s stake. In June 2012, Milton told Shrout that dHybrid was out of money. His paychecks would come to an end, and he’d be locked out of the company’s email system.

A few months later Shrout discovered that Milton and his father had incorporated a new company called dHybrid Systems LLC. Several companies later, in 2015, Milton would launch a similar business with a name that finally seemed to capture the grandiosity of his ambitions: Nikola.

In the winter of 2017, Paul Lackey, the former contractor behind what would eventually become the @ InsiderNikola Twitter account, texted a former colleague who’d just quit his job at Nikola and asked: “So how did they do that video?”

Lackey was referring to a promotional spot that featured the Nikola One speeding down a flat, two-lane desert highway. There was no narration, no visible person. Its message was simple and clear: This thing is for real. But the contractor, having worked on that very vehicle, knew that couldn’t be true. “I figured they’d green-screened it,” says Lackey.

The former colleague confirmed the semi didn’t, in fact, run on its own. But almost three years later, it still nagged at Lackey: How did they pull off the video? He texted the ex-Nikola employee again, who confessed the company had rolled it downhill, but he didn’t know exactly where.

That’s when Lackey decided to conduct a little research. He recognized from the landscape that the video was shot in Utah, which is mostly subsumed by mountains and the Great Salt Lake, and bisected by a handful of roads in the middle. He poked around on Google Maps, looking near the 1,400-mile Mormon Trail. It was a wild guess, but he found what appeared to be the video’s setting. And damned if this stretch of highway actually wasn’t flat—it looked like it had just a tiny bit of a grade. Given that he was on the other side of the country, he needed to find somebody local to check it out in person.

By around this time, an attorney in Utah named Mark Pugsley had already been in touch with Lackey. Years earlier, Pugsley had developed a specialty practice dealing with affinity fraud among Mormons, many of whom had gotten ripped off after investing with members of their church. Utah had the highest rate per capita of such crime in the US, but prosecuting these cases wasn’t exactly fruitful. “It’s not like with public companies where they have hundreds of millions of dollars on hand to satisfy investors,” Pugsley says. “It’s more like a guy down the street who thinks he has a great idea, so he borrows money from everyone who goes to church with him and promises these great returns. By the time I find out about these cases, there’s no money left for me to recover.”

Now Pugsley was in the whistleblower business. Anyone he represented who came forward with information that led to a successful conviction could earn 10% to 30% of a settlement. When a colleague tipped him off about Milton, he already knew the type. Milton had grown up Mormon and had done two years of missionary work in Brazil. “If you’re Mormon, you spend two years going door to door and selling religion,” Pugsley, a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, explains. “And if you can sell religion, you can sell pretty much anything.”

Lackey asked Pugsley about having someone check out that “flat” stretch of highway. Within a few days, someone drove to the spot. The guy put his Honda Pilot SUV in neutral to see how fast he could get it rolling in a two-mile stretch. He texted Lackey a picture of the speedometer: 56 mph.

Ecstatic, Lackey reached out to a couple of journalists, but neither pursued the lead. Then he approached Bloomberg News reporter Ed Ludlow, who had already started looking into the claims being made by Nikola and Milton in interviews and regulatory filings about its technology and speed to market. Ludlow, having spoken to multiple people familiar with the matter, broke the story: Not only was the Nikola One a nonfunctioning truck, he wrote, it was missing essential components that would have made it capable of operating. Milton threatened Ludlow and Bloomberg with a libel suit. “This was clearly done with the intent to wrongfully harm Nikola using knowingly false information to construct a blatant hit piece,” Nikola’s chief legal officer wrote in a statement that was posted to Twitter.

Lackey hatched his @InsiderNikola Twitter account, where people in Milton’s orbit could find each other through direct messages. Meanwhile, Pugsley was collecting his whistleblowers—including a short seller he had once worked with who could stand to make them all a lot of money.

When Nate Anderson launched Hindenburg Research in 2017, it was just him sitting in front of a computer on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, sniffing out a new breed of sketchy startup. Questioning SPACs such as DraftKings Inc. and Clover Health Investments Corp. eventually made him a breakout star of the short-selling world.

By the winter of 2020, when one day he found himself sitting on a park bench in Manhattan with a woman who called herself Natalia and a supposed new whistleblower named Frank, Anderson had already written up the Nikola report—his highest-profile get so far—and was just a few months out from being crowned the “last sane man on Wall Street” by New York magazine.

Anderson went undercover once before, in 2019, when he pretended to have a limp to infiltrate a seminar in which a company called Predictive Technology Group Inc. peddled suspect stem-cell-derived miracle cures. But this felt different. Now he was actively pretending to be someone else—specifically, the whistleblower known as @InsiderNikola, who played a key role in Anderson’s report.

There were a couple of indicators that made this woman, Natalia, seem suspicious from the jump. Her email address contained the numbers “007.” She claimed she was a reporter who covered “Russian spies.” And the paper she said she worked for was “the Guardians”—she kept using the plural. “I can also influence to get a good article out and achieve popularity,” she first wrote to @InsiderNikola in October 2020. “Does this interest you?” She included a link to what she claimed was information that might help further implicate Milton in some sort of fraud.

The actual @InsiderNikola, Lackey, immediately suspected this email was Milton trying to track him down. He’d heard that a former senior US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who once worked on El Chapo and MS-13 campaigns, was door-knocking around Utah, apparently looking to squash potential leaks from Nikola. A former employee had his cell hacked. A video game designer named Jonathan Holmes had given @InsiderNikola a heads-up that a bounty was out for his true identity on a janky-looking Facebook page called Operation Identity. So Lackey was proceeding with caution. After a few emails, Natalia suggested an in-person meeting. He forwarded the exchange to Anderson—with whom Pugsley had already worked on another case involving Mormons getting defrauded—to ask his advice on how best to proceed.

Anderson agreed that Natalia seemed suspect. He forwarded the email to his buddy John Scott-Railton, a researcher at a nonprofit who studies digital security. Scott-Railton immediately sensed an opportunity that had eluded him his entire career: “For a decade, I’ve investigated bad people who hack journalists and whistleblowers. But the big problem is typically the people who hack are different from the people who do in-person things.” And because hackers typically live overseas, beyond US jurisdiction, he explains, “that means that the people who hack almost always get away with it.” This case, on the other hand, had something more tangible—the possibility of meeting face-to-face, “a chance to pull back the veil a little bit.”

Anderson and Scott-Railton concocted a plan to pretend to be @InsiderNikola and a third whistleblower, and to meet Natalia in New York together. They set a date and suggested moving from email to cellphones. Anderson went to Best Buy and bought a burner phone so his home address couldn’t be tracked. When they finally spoke, Natalia told them that at the in-person meeting, her whistleblower, Frank, would hand over a thumb drive with damning evidence against Milton. On the day of the meeting, Anderson put on a Nikola hat and headed to a bench near the designated spot in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park with Scott-Railton. He also hired a former Black Cube intelligence operative to monitor if anyone else was watching them or filming the encounter.

Although Anderson had done all kinds of research to crack open Nikola—including obtaining a satellite photo of the headquarters in Phoenix to prove that it wasn’t, contrary to Milton’s claims, powered by solar panels—this was out of his depth. “I was scared out of my mind,” he says. He sat on the park bench for five minutes. Ten. Finally Natalia, a blonde in her late 30s, walked up with Frank. Natalia looked nervous. Her voice quavered, and she avoided eye contact. Her behavior struck Anderson as more in line with that of a journalist than a spy. Maybe, he thought, he was wrong. He tried to make small talk about the weather, just to feel her out.

“What’s your beat?” Anderson asked. “What do you cover?”

“Actually, I wrote a story about Ukrainian spies,” she said in a heavy Eastern European accent. By the time she explained that the alleged story was published “on the internet,” Anderson was grateful he was wearing a pandemic mask—she wouldn’t be able to tell he was trying not to laugh. She was a spy after all, he realized, just not a skilled one.

Anderson asked Natalia how she met Frank, the silent man next to her. “The internet,” she said again. He had documents, pictures, emails, and multimedia on a thumb drive he’d brought, she added.

By this point, Anderson was confident the whole thing was just a harebrained setup. There was no journalist named Natalia, no whistleblower named Frank, and no evidence. It was just a couple of randos paid to get @InsiderNikola to show himself. “This was the Kmart version of the PI world, which was surprising because Trevor Milton is a billionaire, and it seems like he could get some advice on a talented group of private investigators,” Anderson says. “We were prepared for high-level chess, and they came out playing Candy Land.”

Frank then complained that he was unable to hear the conversation, because everyone was wearing masks. He kept leaning closer to Anderson and Scott-Railton, as if trying to get them to speak into a hidden microphone. Eventually, he persuaded the group to lose the masks. Anderson expected the spies to see his face and recognize him as the Hindenberg Research short seller, Nikola’s most famous critic. “I thought it would be a mic drop moment, but Natalia just had a blank face,” Anderson says.

Then Natalia inexplicably said she wouldn’t continue to speak without a lawyer. Frank, for his part, was completely unsure how to react. It was almost like they’d never researched the history of the company they were working for and had no idea why they were there.

The meeting ended unceremoniously. The Black Cube guy let Anderson and Scott-Railton know that someone was outside the park in a sedan recording them. Scott-Railton approached the vehicle while holding a GoPro camera, but the car peeled out, almost hitting him. Anderson returned to Scott-Railton’s hotel to put the newly obtained USB stick in a Ziploc bag, then went back to his Upper West Side apartment, put his daughter to bed, and ate a bowl of Cheerios.

Hiring private investigators to suss out potential enemies is a textbook move for billionaires. Musk used PIs to research both his own corporate whistleblowers and, in an episode that was bizarre even for him, a British diver he picked a fight with over how best to rescue a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave.

Months after the meeting in Madison Square Park, Anderson was still trying to expose the identities of the spies—there are, after all, untold millions of dollars riding on the whistleblowers’ ability to prove that the former Nikola CEO will go to any means possible to protect his company.

So far, Anderson and Scott-Railton believe they have successfully tracked down the people in the park: an ex-detective with the New York Police Department (the guy in the sedan, whose plates they ran), a polygraph expert who’s been sued for allegedly manipulating the financial performance of his own company (the man who went by Frank and was identified through facial recognition technology), and the woman who called herself Natalia. Scott-Railton helped figure out her identity after a couple of false starts that included finding her profile on the Russian version of Facebook, where she claims to live east of Tel Aviv. In reality, she lives in Miami, where she recently answered the phone at a used-car lot. I obtained my private investigator license on a lark in 2021, and when I asked if she’d ever worked as one, the woman on the other end of the line, Julia Dudenko, laughed. She said that while she wasn’t licensed, she had worked as a spook exactly once: in December 2020, at a park in New York City.

As she put it, a Ukrainian man came into her office one day and told her she “looked brave.” He then asked her if she’d fly to New York that weekend for $2,000, paid up front. Dudenko said the only explanation she’d received was that she’d be meeting with someone who “posted things online that they shouldn’t have.” She claimed to have never heard of Nikola nor sent any emails to @InsiderNikola. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to be talking to you,” she said, before hanging up.

“Natalia” was probably not the first choice. One PI in Los Angeles told me he was approached about looking into Anderson, but he claims to have passed on the assignment because he used to work as a journalist and sympathized with the targets. Still, he was able to theorize on the basic mission: If Nikola was somehow able to tap into the computer of either the short seller or one of the other whistleblowers—or otherwise dig up some dirt on any of them—that might help sway a jury. He also confirmed the essential truth of what Scott-Railton told me: that some of these efforts are impossible to trace back to the source. “The big firms launder their lying—they hire a PI who hires another PI so nothing can ever really be traced back to the client,” he says.

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Audrey Strauss, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, at a news conference announcing charges against Milton in July 2021.

In July 2021, about six months after the botched fact-finding mission, Milton was indicted on two counts of securities fraud and one count of wire fraud. The US Attorney’s Office claimed that he used social media, in particular, to promote false claims about his proprietary technology, which led people to invest—and then lose—tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. In December, Nikola agreed to pay $125 million to settle an SEC civil fraud case over its representations to investors. The whistleblowers all breathed a little easier, assuming that since the feds were after Milton, they must be monitoring his behavior, too.

Milton’s attorneys are arguing that any misrepresentations their client made weren’t in official filings, but on social media—and that they happened before Nikola became a publicly traded company. Meanwhile, Milton caught another charge in June. Prosecutors say he also defrauded a man who sold him a ranch in Utah by persuading him to accept Nikola stock options as payment.

Despite all this, Milton’s company is still alive. In August, Nikola named a new CEO, Michael Lohscheller, who previously worked at GM and Volkswagen. It’s hiring at its Phoenix headquarters, which currently employs about 900 people. Its stock is trading at around $5 a share, a far cry from its all-time high of $79.73 in June 2020, while the company is producing small batches of battery-electric semis.

Milton, who no longer has an official role at Nikola, offloaded more than $317 million in shares in the lead-up to his Sept. 12 trial, which is expected to last about five weeks. True believers, who can still buy a $65 Nikola-branded hoodie or $55 polo shirt at the company’s online store, point to Nikola’s recent acquisition of another company as evidence that its original vision is still within reach. On Aug. 1, Nikola bought a California-based battery maker, Romeo Power Inc., which also went public through a reverse merger. At the time, it was courting big automakers trying to compete with Tesla Inc. and was valued at $1.33 billion. But the SPAC feeding frenzy is over; Nikola scooped it up for just $144 million. —With Ed Ludlow