Friday, September 16, 2011

Making a Difference: VSCPA Member Mary Anne McElmurray, CPA

Some people see cumbersome regulations as an annoyance or a necessary evil. The rule that concerned VSCPA member Mary Anne McElmurray, CPA, however, struck her as antithetical to the very nature of public accounting.

McElmurray (right), tax director at the Roanoke and New River Valley offices of Brown, Edwards & Co., first discovered the problem that bothered her in a daily tax email in 2006. She read that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had issued patents on tax strategies and had more applications pending, and the more she thought about it, the more the idea bothered her.

“I think our profession has suffered in the past from people selling program ideas,” McElmurray said. “Someone in an office comes up with an idea of being artful with the [Tax] Code, and they sell the program with a non-disclosure so they can sell it to a bunch of clients. I saw tax patents as being an outgrowth of the program idea.”

McElmurray got in touch with the VSCPA in 2006 and contacted her Congressman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, and Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb. Spurred by McElmurray, the VSCPA — in concert with the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) and various other state societies — pushed for a ban on tax strategy patents for the next few years, with several bills dying at various stages in the House or Senate.

But in 2011, McElmurray’s efforts paid off. The America Invents Act, which includes language to prevent the USPTO from issuing patents for tax strategy methods, survived both houses and various committees, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law Friday morning.

That’s a welcome development for McElmurray and, she argues, the CPA profession.

“There have been instances where I have had clients that have been contacted by other practitioners, people other than even CPAs, that have been lured or spoken to about certain tax programs, but had to sign a non-disclosure,” she said. “I think that brings out the worst in our profession.”

What’s more, this difference-maker didn’t even envision herself as an accountant coming out of school. McElmurray started her professional career in real estate after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1979 and only switched professions after thinking back on fond memories of her college accounting classes.

She started at Ernst & Whinney’s Roanoke office in 1982 as the first paraprofessional in the history of her branch. After passing the CPA Exam, she stayed on at the firm until it closed the branch in 1986. She found a job at Brown Edwards and has been there ever since.

“Maybe I’m a product of my generation, which I guess is more about improving a system rather than running from position to position,” she said. “I’m not saying anything against the people who do that, but I’m of the generation where you can make a difference in an organization, and that’s why I’ve really stayed here.”

While McElmurray was looking for opportunities to effect change even then, it was her life in her native Roanoke with her husband, Fred, and sons, Philip and John, which led her to Brown Edwards. What she found there was a chance to make a difference in her community.

“You hear this all the time when you’re growing up in public accounting, but until you breathe it, you don’t understand it,” she said. “We listen to what people’s business issues are, and they might not even know what they need or what they’re really asking. But if we look at an issue and reach into our toolbox for things that can solve that issue, that’s what we do. We are not tax preparers, we’re problem solvers.”

And it’s never been more obvious that McElmurray is a problem solver than right now. The process she started came to a close Friday with a stroke of the President’s pen.

“A CPA in the trenches read something and was incredulous, and that CPA spurred the system and something got done,” McElmurray said. “It shows that if you make a valiant attempt, sometimes things do happen. I was very, very pleased with the result.”

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