Peggy Littleton insists she has done nothing wrong or unethical in her six years on the Colorado Board of Education.
But her participation in two real-estate deals for charter schools might suggest otherwise.
Now in the spotlight as the Republican nominee for the District 5 seat on the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, Littleton says there was no conflict of interest because her relationships with the schools' officials pre-dated her state board service. She adds that she got a legal opinion that cleared the way for the deals.
But an ethics expert, Luis Toro with Colorado Ethics Watch, says state rules of conduct bar a public officer from engaging "in a substantial financial transaction for his private purposes with a person whom he inspects, regulates or supervises in the course of his official duties." And although most oversight is provided by school districts, the state board on which Littleton has served since 2004 hears appeals on charter schools, Department of Education spokesman Mark Stevens says. Also, he adds, the state board can have authority over other disputes involving money.
"It doesn't matter if [the officials] knew her or not," Toro says. "She's not supposed to get involved with business transactions with people she regulates. That looks like trading on your public trust for private benefit."
Says her Democratic opponent, state Rep. Michael Merrifield: "She was definitely stepping over the line."
'Full of integrity'
In September 2006, Colorado Springs School District 11 bought a building at 4635 Northpark Drive for the CIVA Charter High School, a college prep school. The district paid $2.15 million.
Littleton says she was paid between 2.5 percent and 3 percent in commission for acting as the real estate broker, which would mean her fee was in the range of $53,750 to $64,500.
In January 2008, Littleton says she was paid $32,675 for brokering a real-estate deal for Imagine Classical Academy at Indigo Ranch, a K-8 classical and college prep school at 6464 Peterson Road in Falcon School District 49.
Littleton also worked with the Cesar Chavez Academy in Colorado Springs in 2006, though no deal was struck, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.
"Both people I knew before I got on the state board," Littleton says of the Imagine and CIVA deals. "The relationship was not established after I got on the state board of education. There is no conflict of interest. The state board makes no decision about where schools purchase, where they lease. We don't make any decision on that. That is up to the school and the school district."
Littleton also says she was given a verbal legal opinion from state board attorney Tony Dyl that the transactions didn't pose a conflict of interest. She adds that she obtained a verbal legal opinion from Dyl on whether she could vote on the appeal of another Imagine school, in Firestone north of Denver, in 2007. She says Dyl said it was OK for her to vote, and she voted in favor of the school both times it came before the board that year. The state Department of Education won't release legal opinions, citing attorney-client privilege.
"I told them I have worked with an Imagine school. They said, 'Are you receiving pay from the school in [Firestone]?' I said no," Littleton says. "All the board has been honest, full of integrity and cautious almost to the point of being overly cautious."
Merrifield, who served as chair of the House Education Committee at the Capitol, says that Littleton acted improperly "in creating an opportunity for her to have financial gains, using her position on the state board.
"She was representing charter schools for which there is a good chance there might be appeals coming to the state board on which she might rule," he says.
"The charter school for which she was realtor would be thinking, 'This is a good thing for us, because we have working for us someone on the state board.'"
Toro says the penalty for violating the state law is payment of amounts earned to the agency the official represents. But the matter might be moot. The state Independent Ethics Commission doesn't consider cases that date back more than a year.
One more thing ...
Before being appointed to the state board in February 2004 and winning a six-year term later that year, Littleton taught and worked as a consultant. She home-schooled her three children for eight years. After obtaining a bachelor's degree from Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., in 1996, she worked at the Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy for a year and at Colorado Springs Christian School from 1997 to 2000.
Between March 2002 and April 2004, she was a Sopris West Educational Services consultant covering the western region, including Colorado. Sopris markets DIBELS, one of three reading assessment tools the state board approved in May 2007 for usage by public schools. Littleton voted to approve DIBELS.
"Why would there be any conflict of interest?" she asks. "There's never been even an appearance of a conflict."
Evie Hudak, a former state board member who now is a state senator, says, "She wanted all schools to use DIBELS and voted for DIBELS to be the assessment used by all schools in the Read to Achieve program." Hudak says she would have recused herself.