Accounting & Auditing | Government | Practitioners

Paul Curtis: Making history, and making an impact, as a CPA in Government

paul_curtisSaving the federal government – and taxpayers – millions of dollars a year, while improving quality, are just some of Paul Curtis’ accomplishments, for which he was recognized earlier this year with the AICPA’s Outstanding CPA in Government Impact Award (Federal), one of three AICPA Outstanding CPAs in Government Awards. Curtis began his career with an internship at the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, worked in public accounting with a local CPA firm and a Big Four firm, and has been with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General since 1994.

How did Curtis decide to go into accounting? What does he like about working as a CPA in government? Find out below, as Paul Curtis joins our Share Your Story series.

[NOTE: Curtis states, “The responses are from me as an individual acting on my own behalf, and not the EPA Office of the Inspector General or the Federal Government.."] 

Being a CPA in Government: Making an Impact

The AICPA award which Curtis received recognizes, "CPA's working in federal, state and local government who have contributed significantly to increased efficiency and effectiveness of government organizations and to the growth and enhancement of the CPA.”

As Director of Financial Audits in the IG’s office at the EPA, Curtis has saved the agency money while conducting high quality audits. He notes he is the only audit executive in the federal government leading an in-house financial statement audit for an executive branch federal agency, saving the agency over $1 million a year, versus if the audit were outsourced. Engagements he's led since 2012 have identified $84.7 million in savings; however, it’s not just the quantifiable results that have meaning.

“The government is very large and difficult to change," he observes. "What gives me the most pride is being able to make an effective change and see it grow. By performing financial and performance audits and overseeing others, the work can result in important changes in how an agency operates to be more efficient and effective. When one sees those things happen, it brings a sense of self-satisfaction, not just for myself but for the entire team.”

It’s clear Curtis and his colleagues feel a sense of purpose in their work at EPA. “Our high-quality audits involve national programs for protecting human health and the environment,” he notes, with his team recommending improved business operations, more accuracy and accountability for contractor-held government property, enhanced controls over billions of dollars’ worth of transactions and strengthened assurance that appropriated funding is used for the correct purposes in a timely manner.

Why major in accounting?

How did Curtis decide to become an accountant?

Starting out as a history major in 1975, Curtis spoke to a few history professors about what he could do with a History degree.  “I was not happy with their response,” he says.  “I wanted a job.”

Friends in his dorm majoring in accounting told him about CPA firms recruiting at the school. “That sounded good to me, so after my first semester, I switched majors and took my first accounting class,” says Curtis. And the rest - is history – er, accounting.

Making history: Treadway Commission Staff

Like many CPAs, Curtis worked for audit firms, starting out with a local firm and then moving to KPMG, where he contributed to the historic work of the Treadway Commission on Fraudulent Financial Reporting, chaired by a former SEC Commissioner, James Treadway. (The founding organizations of the Treadway Commission continue today in the form of COSO: The Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission.)

“While an audit manager as KPMG, I was loaned out as a staff member to the Treadway Commission,” he shares. “There were a number of other staff members loaned from other CPA firms, all listed in the Report of the Treadway Commission as staff members.  I worked primarily on doing research on “opinion shopping” and assisting another staff member, Mark Connelly, with the section on analytical reviews”.

During that time, “I still had audit assignment responsibilities so it was not a full-time assignment.” After the report was issued, “they invited me back to celebrate and I have a signed copy from Jim Treadway and the other commissioners.”

Advice for young CPAs   

When speaking with his staff about career development, Curtis says he often uses an example of a ladder.

“It’s very easy to be at the bottom rung of a ladder, not very far to fall, not much chance of failure. The higher up the ladder you go, things get more daring, and the fall is longer and harder,” he notes.

And, while it can be tough to get to the top of the ladder, it can be even tougher to stay there. “It is up to the person whether they will be at the bottom and just get along, or try to make a difference and strive for that top rung of the ladder,” says Curtis.

[Looking for help choosing your ladder, and managing the climb? Check out the MACPA's Young Professionals Council.]

How have MACPA and AICPA membership supported you in your career?

“The MACPA and AICPA provide very good training,” says Curtis. He notes in particular the MACPA’s ‘Beach Retreat’ in Ocean City, MD, where, “I found the courses to be current, the instructors’ excellent, and of course the location outstanding.”

[Check out Government accounting and auditing courses offered by the MACPA, and other featured events]

Curtis also takes advantage of the AICPA’s online training, CPE Express, saying, “it has helped provide inexpensive training for financial-related areas that are sometimes hard to get in the federal government.”

He expresses gratitude to the AICPA for recognizing him with the Outstanding CPA in Government Impact Award, adding, “Recognition by your peers for the work that you do is the highest compliment.

“The government often gets a bad rap,” observes Curtis, “mostly because of the bureaucracy, but there are many hard-working individuals dedicated to doing an outstanding job. Working with those persons to improve the government and its programs makes for a fulfilling career.”


Edith Orenstein