IRS Simulation Gives Desk-Bound Accounting Students New Options

He wants the receptionist to move away from her computer. But he’s laughing. It could be the gun, which is plastic, and pink. It does sort of ruin the effect.

It could be that he’s new to this – not an actual police agent, but a student. An accounting major, of all things.

“This whole exercise definitely opened my eyes,” he will say later, during a debriefing with the real agents. “All the stereotypes against accountants have just totally been proven wrong.”

That was the real purpose of the Penn State Behrend IRS Project, a daylong simulation coordinated by the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation division. The 19 students who participated got to try the CI life: They questioned suspects, examined financial records and arrested two actors – agents who volunteered for the handcuffs – after a surveillance exercise on the Burke Center loading dock.

“It’s a way to give them some insight into what we do,” said Michael Montanez, acting assistant special agent in charge of the IRS CI division. “It’s accounting work, but it’s not typical accounting.”

Agents made that point early, issuing each student a badge and plastic “red gun.”

One team also got a buttonhole camera, which students wore to a meeting with a tax-hiding bar owner. Meilyng Gonzalez Adams, a junior, sat in on that interview.

“We’re all trying to figure out what we want to do with our accounting degrees,” she said afterward, as agents reviewed footage from the camera. “This is a good hands-on way to explore a different aspect of it.”

The IRS criminal division employs more than 4,000 people. Agents investigate tax crimes, violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and the financial aspects of narcotics and counterterrorism cases. The work requires a mix of law enforcement skills and accounting expertise.

The students selected for the Penn State Behrend IRS Project already had the accounting background. The simulation gave them a taste of the other work.

Brandon Smith, an M.B.A. student, was assigned to the team that searched the offices of the Sam and Irene Black School of Business. He barged in behind John Wells and his warrant.

Smith has worked as a cost accountant, and as a controller. The criminal work was a bit more fun.

“I sit behind a desk all day,” he said, removing his police vest. “So I can totally get into this.”