Republican Clay Tippins is a candidate for Georgia governor. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Georgia candidate faces accusations of conspiracy in CEO’s ouster

A Republican candidate for Georgia governor is facing a lawsuit that claims he was involved in a conspiracy to oust the head of a technology startup in exchange for an ownership stake in the company and more business for the consulting firm he helps run.

The complaint, filed last week in Fulton County State Court, claims that Clay Tippins and the owners of ShapeStart Measurement Systems plotted to fire its chief executive, Wess Sharpe, on a pretext after he uncovered evidence of multimillion-dollar fraud.

Tippins is a first-time political candidate who is campaigning as an outsider with executive experience in the race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. He is one of five top contenders in the May primary for the Republican nomination, and he made his TV debut over the weekend with an ad tied to the Super Bowl.

Tippins said in a statement that the lawsuit was “dirty politics as usual” involving long-resolved matters, and he suggested allies of his GOP rivals were behind the lawsuit.

“It is clear that our fundraising and TV advertisement successes are a threat to the career politicians in this race,” he said. “Georgia deserves a governor focused on the future, not career politicians threatened by a successful outsider.”

The lawsuit also claims that one of the company’s owners, Samuel Kellett Jr., gave another Republican candidate for higher office, state Sen. David Shafer, an ownership stake worth nearly $100,000 in January 2014 for “personal reasons.” Shafer called the allegation false and said he never received free shares.

Sharpe says in the lawsuit that Samuel Kellett Sr. and his son, Samuel Kellett Jr., recruited him to helm ShapeStart in 2011 and that Sharpe helped the company successfully market an otoscope product that boosted the company’s profits.

But it said that the Kelletts “formed a conspiracy” with Tippins for a board vote to oust Sharpe from the company after Sharpe accused the father and son of defrauding the company out of $3.4 million.

Tippins, the suit says, got involved in the effort to remove Sharpe in return for a “promise of valuable ownership” in ShapeStart and contracts for CapGemini, the outsourcing consultancy where he is an executive.

It also accuses Tippins of unlawfully using Sharpe’s Social Security number to obtain his criminal background report, and of recruiting a CapGemini subordinate to the board to help carry out the ouster.

Shafer, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he invested $50,000 in another firm that Kellett Jr. started and lost all but $6,000. He said he pumped that sum into ShapeStart and that his shares are now worthless.

“The notion that my investment was worth $94,000 two years later is ludicrous. The annual report showed losses every year, and, as I understand it, the company is now out of business. My only association with this venture was to lose $6,000,” said Shafer, who added that he has never met Tippins.

Several phone calls and email messages to the Kelletts were not immediately returned.

Tippins said in the statement that the decision to fire Sharpe was unanimous after board members discovered that he did not disclose a felony conviction involving a fight with his father.

Calls to Sharpe’s attorney were not immediately returned. But in the lawsuit, Sharpe said he informed company officials about the 1986 conviction before he took the job.

He says his relationship with the Kelletts soured when he accused the son of “misappropriating over $3.4 million of company assets to himself and his family” that included using company money to pay off personal debts.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages but claims the company’s collapse cost Sharpe more than $56 million worth of financial losses.

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