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The financial sleuth

December 07, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Karen L. May loves doing what's called forensic accounting, sort of a cross between investigating and number crunching that yields financial information for legal proceedings.

It's the kind of accounting used to find shielded assets in a divorce case, to figure out how an elderly person's accounts were drained by a relative with power of attorney or to calculate how much commission an insurance broker was shorted in a compensation fraud case.

May, 45, a Hagerstown native, got a taste of that type of work as a certified public accountant for Smith Elliott Kearns & Co. in Hagerstown.

But while she longed to do more of it than the local market offered, she wasn't willing to make a daily commute out of the county to work for a larger firm where she could specialize.

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"I guess I like the challenge. I like to dig and see what I can find," said May, who likens forensic accounting to putting together a great big puzzle.

You don't have all the pieces to start with, but you gather them as one document leads to another, she said.

Thanks to the wonder of technology and a colleague's trial and error, May now concentrates on forensic accounting and other litigation support work for one of the largest CPA firms in the country. And she does it without leaving her home office most days.

Since June 1, May has been working for Clifton Gunderson LLC, a 39-year-old CPA and consulting firm with offices in 11 states and a range of specialties beyond the core general accounting, audit and tax services traditional to the CPA business.

May is manager of the firm's mid-Atlantic valuation and forensic services group and heads the company's divorce tax practice for the region.

She's qualified as an expert in the courtroom and as a court-appointed expert witness, which means she can assist judges in cases.

Another big part of her work is business valuation, figuring how much a business is worth by researching its records.

She offers traditional accounting services, too. And her office, thanks to the breadth of the company, can offer specialty services to local clients .

May's job entails sometimes going to the Timonium, Md., office. And she regularly goes out to meet lawyers, clients and judges, to pick up records and to testify in court.

But she spends the long hours poring over records in what was her Marsh Pike home's "TV room" before she got the new job and some new office equipment to do it with.

It's just the right mix, said May, who loves working with people but also loves the flexibility of the arrangement and the quiet of her home office. It helps her concentrate, she said.

May didn't decide to be an accountant until years after graduating from South Hagerstown High School.

"What I did was I had my kids first and then went back to school," said May, who became interested in the accounting field after taking a course at then-Hagerstown Junior College.

"I walked down the street and applied at Smith Elliott," she remembers.

May worked at Smith Elliott Kearns & Co. for 17 years, starting as an accounting clerk and - after years of going to college while working fulltime - ending up as a certified public account in 1989.

She went on to earn a master's degree in tax from Georgetown University in 1991.

May credits neverending support from her husband, Duane May, a tax partner at Smith Elliott Kearns, with being able to juggle work, school and family.

May was recruited to Clifton Gunderson by William J. Bavis, a member of the firm she met when they served on the Maryland Association of CPAs' litigation support committee that year.

But she would have had to commute to the Timonium office.

The firm later became open to the option of May working from a home office thanks to Maryann White, a valued employee who was allowed to telecommute from her Greensburg, Pa., home after her husband was transferred there.

Using the telephone and e-mail to share information and documents, May regularly works with White on cases.

Clifton Gunderson's specialty areas include human resources services, employee benefit plan services, litigation support services, technology consulting services, asset management account reviews and all types of financial planning, financial crisis avoidance, fraud services and international services.

The company's Web site address is www.cliftoncpa.com.

May's office number is 301-393-8899.

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