I have hired a marvelous accountant. -- Rep. Geraldine Ferraro
I'd like to get his name and phone number, because I think I've paid too much in the way of taxes. -- Vice President George Bush
His name is Irwin Ettinger. His number's in the book. And as of Thursday night, when George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro talked him up on their televised debate, he's Irwin Ettinger, Superstar -- the Celebrity CPA.
"I'm obviously very pleased with Gerry's remarks," Ettinger said yesterday by phone from his New York office, where he was basking in new-found fame. "As far as Mr. Bush's concern goes, it's also very flattering to know he might want to utilize our services . . . It's always nice to receive praise."
But as of yesterday afternoon, he said he was still waiting to hear from Bush, who complained during the debate that "I got problems with the IRS" because of taxes he was forced to pay on a real estate transaction.
"I really have not even attempted to look at his returns or try to understand his problems," Ettinger said when asked what advice he'd give the vice president.
He describes himself as "only 46, 5-foot-10, 200 pounds and balding" -- and head of the tax department of Arthur Young & Co., which was retained by Ferraro last August to straighten out her returns. He said he also pitches on an "old men's" softball team ("No name, just a color -- this season we were puce"), plays racquetball, reads books ("The last thing I'd do is read a novel about an accountant") and, when the spirit moves, whips up a mean French pizza ("full of good ingredients, sort of all enclosed in a crusty dough, but I don't remember the recipe right now").
Ettinger was last heard from, fleetingly, at Ferraro's full-disclosure press conference in August, when he enumerated the assets and liabilities of the candidate's finances. Since then he's been living happily in relative obscurity, spending his time deciphering the Internal Revenue Code.
"We lead dull lives," he said.
Until Thursday night, that is.
Ettinger said he was watching the debate at home in Stamford, Conn., with his wife Arlene, their three kids and their dog Quincy ("a very large German shepherd") when fame suddenly struck. Ferraro mentioned her "marvelous accountant," Bush asked for his name, and Ferraro promised to give it to him -- "but I warn you," she said, "he's expensive."
Thus was born, on network television, a certified public legend.
"They didn't use my name, but we all knew who they were talking about," said the Brooklyn-born Ettinger, who received his master's in accounting from Michigan State in 1959 and promptly went to work for Arthur Young, where he has been ever since. "We were all very, very surprised that the topic even came up . . . I think the kids were proud of me. We didn't have any firecrackers, so they couldn't shoot those off or anything."
It couldn't be determined yesterday whether Ferraro had actually given Bush her accountant's name, and Shirley Green of the vice president's staff said her boss may have been "only joking." But Bush, whose blind trust has been using the services of a competing firm, could do a lot worse than Irwin Ettinger.
"Irwin is one of the best, if not the best, tax partners in the firm," said Arthur Young's Charles Reynolds, who works with Ettinger on Ferraro's finances and joined him on the phone yesterday.
"I've actually got a knife pointed at Charlie's throat as he's talking to you," Ettinger explained.
As for being "expensive," Ettinger said his fees are in the $200-an-hour range -- "about what a good chef might cost" -- but wouldn't say what he has cost Ferraro.
And as for Ferraro, he said he thinks she's marvelous, too.
"I'd like to handle a whole lot of clients like Gerry," he said. "She's bright, she's quick, she accepts the help and she appreciates it. And you couldn't ask for more than that in a client."