Isaac Roberts was pulled over for speeding and reckless driving. The police officer noticed some checks from the U.S. Treasury lying on his front seat.
Multiple U.S. Treasury checks generally don’t just lie in the open on a car’s front seat, so the police officer called in agents from the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation division.
“Mr. Roberts, what are these Treasury checks doing on your front seat?” one IRS CI agent asked.
“I don’t know. It’s my aunt’s car,” he responded.
“What’s your aunt’s name?” another agent asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“She’s your aunt and you don’t know her name?” the agent asked in a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me voice.
In truth, Mr. Roberts doesn’t know his aunt’s name because she doesn’t exist. The entire scenario was made up as part of a daylong exercise in forensic accounting for 12 students in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“Mr. Roberts” was played by an IRS CI special agent, while the two “agents” questioning him were UTC students getting a taste of what agents in IRS criminal investigations do.
CI is the criminal investigative arm of the IRS, responsible for conducting financial crime investigations, including tax fraud, narcotics trafficking, money-laundering, public corruption, healthcare fraud, identity theft and more. IRS CI special agents are the only federal law enforcement agents with investigative jurisdiction over violations of the Internal Revenue Code, with a 90% federal conviction rate. The agency has 20 field offices located across the U.S. and 12 attaché posts abroad.
“(This exercise) provides students a hands-on learning experience in forensic accounting,” said Dr. Rebecca Shortridge, head of the UTC Department of Accounting and the exercise’s organizer. “Participation in activities like the IRS Citizen Academy provides students the opportunity to explore unique career paths that they might not have considered. IRS CI special agents do not sit at a desk; they are actively participating in investigations that help society.”
The IRS CI division is responsible for more than tax audits. In fact, it doesn’t do those at all. Its agents interview witnesses and suspects in potential federal crimes, request and carry out search warrants, seize stolen property and conduct surveillance and undercover operations. They can carry firearms and are trained in their safety and use.
When necessary, they even root through garbage dumpsters—not a fun part of the job, explained IRS CI Special Agent Camille DeMatteo, who is based in Chattanooga and ran the student exercise at UTC.
Known as the IRS Citizen Academy, the exercise was staffed by several IRS CI special agents who led students through two scenarios. One involved a theft ring and cashing Treasury checks using stolen identity information. The other examined a shady tax preparer who uses others’ personal tax returns to enrich himself.
Students interviewed suspects, talked to confidential informants, gathered evidence, decided on plans of action and, ultimately, tried to convince a magistrate to issue search and arrest warrants.
Savannah Ellis, a sophomore in accounting from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, said she heard about forensic accounting while she was headed to her high school graduation ceremony. As a former 911 dispatcher in Lawrence County, “I’ve always kind of had a love of law enforcement,” she said.
The idea of forensic accounting interested her, she said, and after her graduation ceremony, “I went home and did a lot of research on it and found out a lot about it.”
Forensic accountants are needed right now, DeMatteo said.
“There’s a huge need for it,” she said. “You have money laundering cases, ID theft cases. We get called in to help other agencies on drug cases involving money laundering, public corruption cases. Health care fraud’s big right now.”
Bryce Didonato, a senior in accounting who graduated from East Hamilton High School, participated in the IRS Citizen Academy and said she saw it as “a really good opportunity for me to learn more about forensic accounting.”
“It was a brand-new concept to me,” she said.
As for the fake Mr. Roberts, he was defiant while being questioned on the sidewalk next to his car, but shrugged and gave permission when the role-playing students asked to search the car and its trunk.
“Hurry up. I got places to go, people to meet and food to eat,” he said.
Found in the trunk, a backpack held a stack of debit cards and a notebook with names that were the same as those on the Treasury checks. When asked who the people were, Roberts said, “I don’t know.”
With an outstanding warrant for petty theft already hanging over him, he was given the choice of going to jail or talking to the IRS CI agents and possibly becoming an informant.
“I guess I’ll go with them,” he said.