TRUE VALUE: CPA helps pin down the equitable price to pay

Even in the seemingly perfect world of numbers, not everything always adds up for Brenda Orlando, a Clarkston-based CPA who specializes in forensic accounting.

Such numerical oddities are particularly prevalent in high-end divorce cases and impending business break-ups, where an accurate accounting of real worth invariably is shrouded by an innate desire for financial self-preservation.

My job is to put the numbers under the magnifying glass to see that they are indeed accurate and fully reflect what is at stake, said Orlando, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1983. Even if both parties have the best of intentions, which is not necessarily the case, the issues can be so complex that they are difficult to sort out unless there is an independent accounting.

Which is where Orlando has found her professional niche. Over the past 15 years, Orlando has built a boutique firm that specializes in accounting and consulting to closely
held businesses, while also offering litigation support services. It is in the latter role where Orlando has developed a special expertise, boasting more than 4,500 hours of litigation experience in the areas of divorce, forensic accounting, and business valuation.

Almost by definition, forensic accounting spells litigation, invariably spilling into a courtroom or some such evidentiary setting where expert testimony can be given, according to Orlando. A growing part of her accounting practice has been in the area of family law, helping determine appropriate spousal and child support, as well as the equitable distribution of assets. She is adept at tracing assets and funds, perhaps uncovering incidences of fraud
or embezzlement along the way.

There is seldom a clear cut case in divorce matters, said Orlando, the mother of two daughters in college. The greater the income and the more diverse the business holdings, the greater the challenge in analyzing the real value, especially when it comes to property in what has become a very soft market. The downturn in the housing and real estate markets has made it even more difficult to get a truly accurate reading on financial worth.

Which, of course, only serves to whet her accounting appetite even more.

I love following the paper trail that money leaves, Orlando said of her specialty field. It ultimately comes back to a point that makes accounting sense. It may take time, it may be costly, but it generally ends up at a point where the numbers speak for themselves.

She recalled one recent case in particular as evidence of that fact. Orlando, who grew up in Warren and began her accounting career with what is now Deloitte, was retained by a woman in a divorce case. Her job was to assess whether the numbers reflected reality, to determine if the lifestyle the couple had been leading during their marriage matched what he now reported as income and relative net worth.

I only take on a case if Im convinced that I can do something of value for a client, whether the stakes are in the thousands or the millions, she said. If I feel that assets are being hidden or shielded to avoid proper payment, then Im going to do everything in my power to make things equitable.

In this case, Orlandos client was convinced that her husband was under-reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars of income from various cash-based businesses, including a scrap metal operation where the bookkeeping methods were primitive at best. Slowly but surely, Orlando and an assistant she hired specifically for the case began the painstaking process of sorting through thousands of sales slips, matching their calculations with what had been reported for tax purposes. The discrepancy bordered on mind-boggling, according to Orlando, amounting to several million dollars.

I make it a point to touch every piece of paper in a case like that, to make sure that I get the full picture of the business operations, Orlando said. Only then am
I in a position to fully understand the scope of the situation and, if called upon, to testify in court to what I have discovered.

Her forensic detective work in that case came at a high cost, however.

I received a death threat, which is unnerving to say the least, Orlando admitted. Unfortunately, it can come with the turf.

Orlando, who has had a life-long love of numbers, was encouraged by her father to pursue a career in accounting. He saw her early aptitude and interest in the profession while she worked for him as a teen in his construction rental equipment business.

He was really ahead of his time, Orlando said of her father Jim, who died of a brain tumor at age 72 earlier this year. He didnt want me to work in his business, he wanted me to develop a career of my own, to chart my own professional path. He had a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and he passed that along to me. My mother (Virginia) also really wanted me to find my own business niche.

Her reputation in helping establish business and asset valuation has grown over the past decade, as has her involvement with various bar activities. She is a past president of the Oakland County Bar Foundation and currently serves on its board of directors, continually championing its legal aid work and educational programs in the community.

The legal aid needs are so great in this economy that it is wonderful to be involved in an organization that is so devoted to supporting such causes, Orlando said of the OCBF. I feel honored to be part of the Bar Foundation. The people involved with it are amazingly dedicated.

By Tom Kirvan

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