Trevor Milton, founder and former-CEO of Nikola Corp., departs the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York
Trevor Milton, founder and former-CEO of Nikola Corp., departs the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York, U.S., September 12, 2022. Reuters

A federal prosecutor on Thursday urged jurors to convict Nikola Corp founder Trevor Milton of fraud, calling him a "con man" who lied about the low-emission vehicle company to defraud ordinary investors.

The prosecution and defense delivered their closing arguments in Milton's New York City trial, which began last month.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Estes said Milton deceived investors about the electric- and hydrogen-powered truck maker's technology starting in November 2019. Milton left the company in September 2020 after a report by short seller Hindenburg Research called the company a "fraud."

Defense attorney Marc Mukasey told the jury that prosecutors had twisted Milton's statements about Nikola's plans to shake up the automotive industry.

"It's a distortion to say that Trevor Milton intended to commit fraud when the statements he made were about the Nikola business model," Mukasey said.

Though Milton sometimes "fell into the wrong grammatical tense," other executives did, too, Mukasey added.

Estes recapped evidence from the trial including testimony from individual retail investors who prosecutors have said Milton targeted in podcasts, interviews and social media.

"Trevor Milton is a con man," Estes said. "His lies may have been on social media, but his was an old-fashioned fraud."

Prosecutors during the trial said Milton made false statements about Nikola's progress on developing its technology as the company joined the mounting number of tech and electric vehicle companies going public through special purpose acquisition vehicles, or SPACs.

They also said Milton's improper statements included that Nikola built an electric- and hydrogen-powered "Badger" pickup from the "ground up," developed batteries in-house that he knew it was purchasing elsewhere and had early success in creating a "Nikola One" semi-truck he knew did not work.

Milton was obsessed with the company's stock price and made the statements to inflate it and his net worth, Estes told the jury.

Mukasey countered that Milton was open about his interest in the stock price with top Nikola executives and that they praised his statements in emails. It was only after the government started investigating that Nikola turned on its founder, Mukasey said.

"If you are being investigated by the government and you want them to go away, you say what the government wants," Mukasey said.

Milton's lawyers also have said Nikola's filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission made clear it was an early-stage company and that investments in it were highly speculative.

The case is U.S. v. Milton, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 1:21-cr-00478.