Nikola Corp.’s founder and former Chairman Trevor Milton has been issued a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury, the company confirmed in a regulatory filing yesterday.
The company itself has also been called to testify as part of what appears to be an escalating probe into allegations of fraud. Nikola, which has been developing plans to build and sell hydrogen and battery-powered trucks, came under intense scrutiny after a short-seller published a report in September claiming the nascent EV maker fraudulently overstated the capabilities of at least one of its vehicles to win new investors.
The company has repeatedly denied the accusations it is facing but its announcement, along with indications of rapidly mounting legal bills, have hammered the company. A major deal with General Motors has been delayed and Nikola’s stock has tumbled sharply. Shares were off nearly 4% Monday, despite having a notably smaller loss for the third quarter than had been anticipated by Wall Street analysts.
Founded in Salt Lake City in 2014, Nikola Motors initially planned to produce large semi-trucks using fuel cells, rather than conventional diesel engines. The company has since added plans to produce a pickup truck, the Badger able to run on batteries or as a hydrogen-electric hybrid.
Interest in the company helped it pull together a so-called SPAC deal with a “blank-check company” helping take it public earlier this year.
While Nikola claimed to have a number of proprietary technologies, it announced on Sept. 9 another deal with General Motors. The plan called for GM to supply its own hydrogen and battery tech to Nikola, and to build the Badger at a plant producing GM’s own electric truck, the GMC Hummer. In return, the Detroit automaker was to become one of Nikola’s largest shareholders.
Just two days later, short-seller Hindenburg Research released a report claiming Nikola was based on “intricate fraud built on dozen of lies” perpetrated by Milton. That quickly triggered an SEC probe and led to the decision by Milton to resign on Sept. 21.
The GM deal, meanwhile, had been widely expected to be finalized Sept. 30, but the two sides missed their deadline, leading some to question whether it would collapse. During a conference call last week, GM CEO Mary Barra indicated talks were continuing, but the original proposal the companies came up with will expire Dec. 3 if nothing happens before then.
Industry insiders have suggested, on background, that GM is waiting to see what might happen on the legal front while also looking at how the crisis might impact the stock holdings it was expected to get out of the alliance.
That will likely be influenced by what now appears to be several investigations at the state and federal level.
In its new filing, Nikola confirmed earlier reports the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued subpoenas to Nikola, its board and eight officers and employees in September. It also revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice has issued its own grand jury subpoenas targeting Milton and the company itself. Nikola also has received subpoenas from the New York County District Attorney’s Office.
On Monday, Nikola said that it “is continuing its discussions with General Motors. Nikola will provide further updates when appropriate or required.”
The company’s news wasn’t entirely bad. Where analysts had anticipated a third-quarter loss of 35 cents a share, the numbers came in at 31 cents, and an adjusted loss of 16 cents. The company also said it still has $918 million in cash on hand.