What’s it like to work for the Internal Revenue Service?
Not to profile a 161-year-old federal institution, but one might imagine 40-hour work weeks filled with forms, files, figures and fluorescents.
Or maybe not. A daylong IRS workshop, held April 14 at the Davis College of Business and Economics in Kyle Hall, set out to dispel those stereotypes for about 50 students from Radford and Bridgewater College and possibly lead some to their future careers.
While the exercise involved no shortage of paperwork, there were also mysteries for the students to unravel. By the end of the day, the clues they uncovered ultimately led them to don law-enforcement vests, riot shields and replica sidearms as they executed a mock raid on an office.
It was the IRS Citizens Academy Training Program, hosted by about two dozen representatives from the IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) and organized by Assistant Professor of Accounting Rob Warren, who, prior to entering academia, was himself an IRS-CI agent for more than 22 years.
Dean Joy Bhadury prefaced the event by telling students it would be like “an adrenaline shot” and, indeed, over the course of the day, attendees tackled an accelerated roleplaying version of a case much like those the IRS-CI handles.
Although the IRS-CI might spend two years on a case, the students got the condensed, 7-hour version.
“We’re basically going to walk you through a simulated investigation … so you get a feel for what it’s like to do this job,” Robert Glantz, a special agent and the master of ceremonies, told the crowd.
First, they interviewed a fictional informant, “Nash” (played by an IRS-CI agent in a hoodie and Yankees ballcap), who told them about his boss, a shady entrepreneur with a string of businesses and a penchant for suspicious activities, including possible financial crimes and terror-funding.
“Something’s not right,” Nash told them before fielding students’ questions about his job, the many red flags he saw, the company finances and why he was coming forward.
“Because I’m a good person,” he replied. Part of their challenge was to determine whether that was true.
Students participating in the IRS Citizens Academy Training roleplayed as agents who had to approach a judge and make a case to be granted a search warrant. Assistant Professor of Accounting Rob Warren (seated) who organized the event and is a former IRS-CI agent, portrayed one of the judges.
Armed with Nash’s tips, students got stacks of files – Lexis records on the owner and other workers, tax filings by the businesses, plus IRS Suspicious Activity Reports. Breadcrumbs were sprinkled throughout, and students had to spot such irregularities as linked addresses and large cash contributions from unlikely donors.
They conducted interviews with employees and suspects (again, played by agents) before approaching judges to request warrants for searches and arrests.
Warren portrayed one of those justices and, when students were slow to answer his legal questions, would impatiently chide them, in character: “Come on, let’s go, I’ve got a golf game to get to!”
Finally, they participated in a raid on the suspected businesses, weeding through workspaces to seize evidence and avoid such potential pitfalls as a frantic accountant who was carrying a baby (played by a doll) but who also was secretly armed with a weapon.
“First, you ask them. Then you tell them. Then you make them,” Special Agent Patrick Smith had advised the trainees, pre-raid, but fortunately, the siege never reached that volatile third stage.
Chandler Scott, a Radford senior from Giles County, Virginia, who’s studying business management, hopes to work with the U.S. Marshals Service and said he attended because “I wanted to get exposure on the federal system and how the IRS operates. Federal agents do work together on different cases, and I just really enjoyed how everything all came together in the end.”
Bridgewater College’s Faith Helm is a senior business administration major from Woodbridge, Virginia, and she said she wants to work for the government.
The training program culminated in a mock-raid on a business suspected of criminal activity, with students conducting arrests.
“This showed me there’s more to the IRS than just doing accounting,” Helm said.
“Any major financial case that you read about or hear about, I can almost guarantee you there’s an IRS special agent behind the scenes that worked on that case,” said Donald Fort, who is now retired from the IRS after serving 10 different positions within the organization.
Special agents need 15 credits in accounting, and Warren said he knows some who hold degrees in other disciplines – sociology, archaeology – but who returned to school to gain the necessary qualifications.
Prospective IRS employees can apply up until age 37 but must stand down once they turn 57, and he said that over the next six years, an estimated 55,000 personnel are expected to retire, with current funding available to replace those workers.
Warren said that, due to its scale and time commitments required, few IRS citizen training academies are conducted.
“We are very fortunate that the IRS invested the personnel and resources necessary to make this event the success that it was,” Warren said afterward.
“I am already lobbying for the IRS to come out again next year.”
Neil Harvey for Radford University