REUTERS: Shares of electric-truck maker Nikola Corp tumbled as much as 30per cent on Monday after founder Trevor Milton stepped down following claims of nepotism and fraud by a Wall Street short-seller that have drawn interest from U.S. regulators.
The company named Stephen Girsky, former vice chairman of General Motors Co and a member of Nikola's board, to take over as chairman, as it strives to regain investors' confidence.
GM, which recently announced it would receive an 11per cent stake in Nikola under a partnership, said in a statement on Monday it would work with Nikola to close the deal while stressing it was just one element of its electric vehicle strategy.
In a scathing report published just after the GM tie-up two weeks ago, short-seller Hindenburg Research said it had enough evidence to show Nikola and Milton made false claims about the company's proprietary technology to form partnerships with large automakers.
Hindenburg also alleged that Milton appointed his brother, Travis, to lead a unit in the company for which he did not have any substantial experience related to the sector. (https://reut.rs/3mFQ6mM)
"The focus should be on the company and its world-changing mission, not me," Milton, who owned 25per cent of the company's outstanding shares at the end of July, said in his resignation letter.
"So I made the difficult decision to approach the board and volunteer to step aside."
He said the allegations were false and he would defend himself against them.
The company said that Milton had agreed to give up all of 4.9 million performance-based stock units he was granted last month as well as the option of a two-year consultancy agreement which would have netted him US$20 million.
Stock market investors, who have been selling the company's shares for a week, were not convinced, driving the stock down by as much as a third in early deals before it found some support.
Short-sellers betting against the stock collectively made US$104 million in Monday's slump, according to data from financial analytics firm S3 Partners.
"While founder Trevor Milton's departure may give the appearance of a company that's moving on, we believe this is only the beginning of Nikola's unraveling," Hindenburg said in its own statement on Monday, asking GM to reevaluate its deal.
GM has agreed to build an electric pickup for Nikola and supply batteries and hydrogen fuel cells for commercial trucks. In return, GM is also expected to receive payments of up to US$700 million for assembling the Nikola Badger pickup.
Nikola shareholder and Italian vehicle equipment maker CNH Industrial declined to comment, while Germany's Robert Bosch, a supplier and investor, said it intended to continue working with the company.
Nikola, a competitor for Elon Musk's Tesla in the trucks space, said last week it was discussing the claims with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It has publicly rejected the accusations and threatened to take legal action against Hindenburg.
The Financial Times reported last week that the U.S. Department of Justice was also probing the claims.
Brokerage J.P.Morgan noted that Milton's resignation could weigh on some of the partner and customer relationships that he had forged, but said Girsky is better suited to the role as Nikola moves on to its next phase.
Brokerage RBC slashed its price target on Nikola by US$28 to US$21 after the founder's resignation.
(Reporting by Rama Venkat, Ayanti Bera and Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Patrick Graham, Anil D'Silva and Maju Samuel)