NYSSCPA Award Winners for 2017

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 11, 2017

John Kearney
John J. Kearney

Distinguished Service Award winner pressed profession to raise the bar

By the time John J. Kearney, the winner of this year’s Distinguished Service Award, became NYSSCPA president in 2004, he had already had more than a decade of dedicated Society activity behind him. He had served as a member of the Board of Directors, the Foundation for Accounting Education (FAE) Board of Trustees, the Benevolent Fund, 10 committees and three task forces. No slouch at the chapter level, he had also served as treasurer, vice president and, eventually, president of the Nassau Chapter. Kearney, a partner at Jaeckle Kearney & Lepselter, became the Society president at a time when the wounds of Enron and the subsequent collapse of Arthur Andersen were still fresh in the profession’s mind. Kearney’s tenure as president was marked by efforts to raise the bar for accounting professionals. 

“We were always advocating for an update of the profession’s laws, so that the public was better protected. CPAs—99.9 percent of them—are trying to do the right thing. We needed to just kind of help them along and protect them and educate them and work with them so they would be able to do their job and do it well. That’s the kind of stuff we looked at there,” he said. 

Years before the enactment of a reform law in 2009 encompassing all three changes, Kearney advocated for mandatory peer review, universal CPE requirements and an expansion of professional experience requirements for certification. He also worked with the AICPA and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) on implementing changes to the peer review program based on recommendations outlined in an earlier NYSSCPA report. During his 2004–2005 term as president, the Society also collaborated with the Office of the State Comptroller on the state’s five-point plan to strengthen internal controls in New York’s school districts in the wake of a scandal in the Long Island school system, pledging that the Society would help train firms that may lack the required school district expertise. 

“We need to get back to the basics, reinforce our core values and continue to improve our skill sets. We need to work together to promote our profession as honest, hardworking and competent. Over time, these steps will help us reclaim our role as the trusted professional,” said Kearney in his inaugural president’s message in the June 2004 issue of The Trusted Professional. 

Kearney also oversaw significant changes in the NYSSCPA itself. His term saw bylaws changes that toughened ethics requirements by automatically disciplining members sanctioned by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board or other regulators, and made peer review a requirement for membership. 

Kearney also advocated for the Society to expand its vision beyond public accounting firms; during his presidency, the Society undertook an initiative called “CPAs on Boards” to match nonprofit organizations with competent CPAs who could advise them on financial integrity. He also said that the Society could do more to support members in industry—who, he noted, have different circumstances and needs than those who work in public accounting firms—launching an extension education program specifically targeted to industry members’ professional responsibilities and areas of expertise and interest. 

Kearney remained an active member after his term as president was over, continuing to serve on numerous Society committees and task forces, including the Board of Directors and the Executive, the Quality Enhancement Policy and the Political Action committees. Needless to say, he was—and remains—a busy guy. But while he acknowledged that he has given much to the Society, he said that a big part of his motivation for being so involved is how much the Society has, in turn, given him. 

“I’ve always felt, in my mind, that whenever you gave to something, you always seemed to get more out of it—you know, whether it was involvement in the tax committees or lecturing, it enhanced and improved your skill set, because if you had to speak on something, you had to be better prepared than anyone listening to you. So, it helped from that standpoint. And, hey, if it helps things get better for everyone else [too], then I’m willing to help out and pitch in, and that’s the way I’ve always done a lot of things,” he said. 

Kearney was humble about the Distinguished Service Award, noting that he’s not the kind of person to chase the spotlight, though he said that it was nice to be acknowledged for the work he’s put into the Society. 

“I really appreciate it, because I put in a lot of time and effort over the years, but I’m not really looking for accolades—it’s not in my personality. As long as [the Society’s] successful, I’m happy. I’m not big on taking the bows,” he said. 

He remains an active voice in the profession today—as a member of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, he advises the NYSED on matters relevant to the state’s CPA profession, ensuring that the state’s rules and regulations continue to protect the public and meet the needs of an evolving profession in a state that hosts the nation’s financial capital. As was the case during his presidency, Kearney is doing this at a time when the profession is undergoing rapid transformation and finding numerous challenges in adapting to business changes. However these changes play out, though, he is confident that the Society’s close relationship with the board will help the profession to meet them. 

“The involvement of the Society and the good working relationship they’ve always had with the state board and the legislature [helps the Society with] working on things that are good for the profession and public. There’s always been that good working relationship. … What we’ve always advocated to the legislature and to the state board are the things that improve and enhance the profession. That’s the mantra of a profession looking out for the public,” he said.  

Denise M. Stefano

CPA education award winner inspires, is inspired by, her students

The Outstanding CPA in Education Award is named for the late Emanuel Saxe, a former teacher at Baruch College, who was nationally known as a specialist in accounting theory, auditing and fiduciary accounting, and served as an NYSSCPA vice president, executive board member and director, as well as the managing editor of The CPA Journal for 10 years.

Denise M. Stefano, the recipient of this year’s Dr. Emanuel Saxe Outstanding CPA in Education Award, had no intention of becoming a CPA. Growing up in south Yonkers, she left high school ready to pursue a career in music, and even had a recording contract with a small company. But circumstances changed, and the contract fell through, leaving Stefano to reflect on what it was she wanted to do with her life. After thinking about it for a few years, Stefano went back to school at 27 and pursued a career in accounting education. 

Since that time, she has been intensely involved in fostering the next generation of CPAs. While her initial goal was getting a job at one of the big accounting firms, as she advanced in her college career, she found herself increasingly inspired by her professors—more and more, she pictured herself in front of a classroom and found that it made perfect sense. 

“I was very inspired by those who were teaching me—I always sat there in class and said, ‘Someday, I’m going to get up there and be like them and impart my knowledge to someone else,’” she said. 

In particular, she named Rita M. Piazza, an assistant professor at Iona College at the time, as one of the teachers who inspired her, though Piazza herself noted that Stefano’s growth and success have, in turn, inspired so many more. 

“Teachers are the best way to recruit dedicated professionals. They do this when they show an enthusiasm for the profession and a sincere interest in their students. It is also important to have a great teacher in an introductory class of accounting. I impressed Denise with this, and she, in turn, has impressed her students,” said Piazza. 

Stefano, who worked full-time, first as a staff accountant and then as an accounting manager, through her entire college career, began teaching almost as soon as she graduated. She pursued an MBA mostly for the opportunity to finally get in front of a class, she said, and as soon as she had that degree in her hand, began applying for teaching jobs. Her first was at Iona College, where she was given a graduate-level course to teach, followed by a stint at Fordham University, before finally ending up at Mercy College, where she has been for the past 14 years. She is now director of Mercy’s accounting program. 

Her teaching style focuses mainly on the practical aspects of accounting, as opposed to the more theoretical approach—a method she picked up from her own teachers. They were, she said, enthusiastic about what they did and were actual practitioners who brought real-world experience to their lessons. Stefano tries to bring that same level of pragmatic focus to her own lessons. 

“The practical flavor they brought to the classroom, I thought, was just key,” she said. “When I began to teach, that’s what I think students now see in me—I come from all walks of life. I’ve worked in public accounting, private accounting, been a controller, a CFO; I bring a lot of practical experience to the classroom. They get it, and say, ‘Oh, that’s why you do that.’ And that’s the same thing I said when I was a student.” 

She’s known among both students and colleagues for her inexhaustible energy reserve, earning the nickname Energizer Bunny. It’s obvious from her activity. Beyond teaching classes in every subject but taxation, Stefano is also intensely involved in CPA exam prep. Not only does she teach test prep classes herself, but the major exam prep companies have tapped her expertise numerous times over the years: While maintaining a full teaching schedule, she also worked first as a consultant and then as director of product development with SmartPros Ltd. for 10 years, as well as edited materials for John Wiley & Sons for one year. She has checked question banks for errors and inconsistencies, mapped questions against the CPA exam blueprint, and streamlined presentation materials to make them more accessible. 

“Being able to give my insight, looking at [the materials] from a student’s perspective, saying, ‘There’s a redundancy there; this is presented at the end of the chapter but should be put up here’—that kind of thing was very attractive to me,” she said. 

Through all of this activity, she has also found the time to write five books on the CPA exam. The first four, each of which focuses on one of the four sections of the exam, were published in 2014, while the fifth, 2,000 Review Questions for the CPA Exam, was released just this past October. Stefano said that the books, which she co-wrote with a colleague, came about through her experiences in the CPA exam prep world. While other test prep materials will have plenty of practice questions, her own book was intended to explore the concepts behind the questions, as well. 

“We like to explain every one of the answers. … We try to expand on why one answer is right and why others are not,” she said. 

Stefano is also deeply committed to encouraging diversity within the profession, being involved in both her chapter’s local Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program as well as in establishing campus chapters of the National Association of Black Accountants and the Association of Latino Professionals for America. She said that many students at Mercy College are the first ones in their families to go to college, which means that they don’t have family members who have gone through what they’re going through and can put them on the right track. Stefano said that this is why it’s important, as both a faculty member and department chair, to mentor such students and help guide them through their college careers and beyond. 

“I have students all the time [who] don’t know where to go in their career; they may not know the different opportunities afforded to students, so I spend an inordinate amount of my time on this—working with students to get them prepared, to be able to interview appropriately and know what to say in an interview and get them jobs. … [Many of these] students come back to me and say, ‘If not for you, I would never be where I am in my career right now,’” she said. 

Westchester Chapter President Catherine M. Censullo pointed to Stefano’s indefatigable passion and dedication to her students as the reason why she nominated her for the award. 

“I have known Denise personally for the past six years, and her incredible level of energy and enthusiasm in working on every aspect of education and student development continues to amaze me,” said Censullo. 

Gwendolyn Horn, who also nominated Stefano and is the secretary of the Westchester Chapter, said that Stefano exemplifies the NYSSCPA member who has shown a lifetime devotion to accounting education. 

“Through community outreach, college curriculum planning, teaching, mentoring, special event programming and Society leadership, she has inspired, encouraged and educated students and professionals at all stages of their careers,” said Horn. 

Stefano said she appreciated the recognition brought to her through the award, though she also noted that, in the end, the interests of the students are paramount. 

“It’s about the students. That’s what this award is for: making students successful and being able to impart knowledge [to] students and have them grow in their careers,” she said. 

ET Kitchen
Edward J. Torres

Outstanding CPA in Government Torres reflects on 32 years serving NYC

With 32 years of experience under his belt, NYSSCPA member Edward J. Torres, the recipient of this year’s Outstanding CPA in Government Award, knows more than most about both how gratifying and how frustrating working for New York City can really be. 

He made a name for himself in City Hall while still a student at Baruch College, securing a job at the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) through the school’s placement office—mainly, said Torres, because he’d just moved out of his parents’ home and needed a job to avoid going back. Within a year, he had written a book-length report on the FDNY’s internal controls that impressed people high up the chain, with staff members of the Office of the New York City Comptroller saying that it was the best internal control report they’d seen that year. 

The report also served him well when he made the move to the New York City Board of Education (now the New York City Department of Education). He had been with the FDNY for about six years at that point, having stayed on after graduation, when he decided he needed a more permanent position. After he took the exams to be either a management auditor or a tax auditor, and ranked No. 20 and 21, respectively, out of about 5,000 other exam takers, the Board of Education asked him to come in for an interview. He brought a copy of his report. 

“There were five people in my interview, like the Spanish Inquisition!” he joked. But he said they really liked both him and the report, and offered him the job. 

The job, which involved certifying financial reports from the board’s TV station, was what enabled Torres to then get his license, as he was working under the direct supervision of a CPA. After passing the exam, he became the person who signed the certifications. As at the FDNY, he moved up the ranks, going from, in his words, “assistant peon to the peon,” before, eventually, becoming auditor general, where he stayed for 20 years. 

“When I was auditor general, we had a $20 billion-a-year budget that I oversaw and audited, and the thing is, that’s bigger than a lot of countries,” he said. 

Later, he moved on to the IT department to help implement the district’s plan to purchase a million computers, and then, a few years later, to food services, helping the city feed millions of children every day, “which is a pretty big undertaking.” 

He liked the operational nature of the audits, which meant that he didn’t have to be what he called “a gotcha goon” and, instead, was able to find what was wrong, help fix it, and make things better. 

The work did come, however, with its own challenges that were outside the field of auditing. Government, he said, is more challenging than most private individuals could ever imagine, and even the best of intentions can go astray. 

“What winds up happening is, sometimes, [with] all these controls and all the entrenched factions, [government measures] wind up not being effective, and even though there [are] a lot of really well-intentioned people and rules, it gets in the way of progress and in the way of conducting actual business,” he said. “That’s how you get $2,000 toilets.”

He also said it was a struggle contending with apathy and inefficiency within the government, “like a stereotypical government employee [where] they don’t really care,” but he added that it meant he never got bored. 

In all his years in government, Torres also maintained his own private tax practice, which, he said, led to a number of late nights, as he tried to get his work done for both jobs. Rather than working at cross-purposes, he said that each experience helped enrich the other, as he was able to appreciate the issues facing both sides of the divide and help bridge the gap. With a foot in both worlds, he was able to take a broader perspective than people who only knew one or the other. 

For instance, he was able to take big-picture concepts to people who may not be aware of all the thought going into a particular government initiative, which helped when advising clients on how they could improve their businesses, as well as figuring out how to improve his own. 

“When you’re a small guy, you just say, ‘Oh, it would be great to implement a million computers, and it would be like hitting the lotto,’ but you don’t see the big picture—you need to go slow and figure things out in advance, and have to provide support. It’s not just installing the computers; you’ve got to teach people how to use them, train people in how to teach people how to use them, and it’s a bigger thing,” he said. 

On the other hand, he said his experiences as a private practitioner also served him well in helping the government gain a better understanding of what its actions might mean for everyday people. 

“Having the small-picture concept [and] bringing it to the Ivory Tower—where they make these big decisions but not realizing how it was impacting the little guy—helped me in my career, too, because then they were, like, ‘Wow, we never thought of that,’” he said. 

Torres retired from government this past July but still maintains his private practice. He reflects fondly on his experiences in New York City government, which allowed him to directly contribute to the city he grew up and lived in his whole life. He said that his mother, a social worker, raised him with strong instincts about the need to give back to one’s community, which he was able to satisfy through his work. 

“At the end of it all, I really feel like I appreciated my time in government, because I helped with a lot of issues that affected kids in classrooms. Hopefully, some of them will wind up paying it forward and making a difference,” he said.




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