Angela Truesdale, Jarchelle Williams and the rest of their team of University of Missouri–St. Louis business students sat together at a table pouring through tax returns and bank records one more time as they got set to interview their suspect, a man known as “Todd Smith.”
They wanted to be prepared with facts when they tried to coax a confession out of him or, the next best thing, catch him in a lie about the unreported income they uncovered. That would help them establish intent as they tried to make a case for tax fraud.
Truesdale and Williams were among 21 students acting as special agents on April 28 while taking part in the IRS Citizen Academy, a simulated experience put on by members of IRS Criminal Investigation’s St. Louis field office.
Their final review came in handy when “Smith” – played by one of the real IRS-CI special agents in this mock scenario – started answering evasively during questioning a short time later in his pretend home in the hallway at Anheuser-Busch Hall.
“Frankly, Todd, we’re here because your lifestyle is a little outside of your means, according to your tax returns,” Truesdale said sternly.
“You don’t like my lifestyle?” “Smith” answered.
“I love your lifestyle,” she said. “I wish I could afford something similar, but your business has suffered losses for the past three years. Your income does not match.”
“Smith” started getting a little hostile and soon asked the students to leave.
But before the day was up, they would return, this time with a warrant for his arrest. Donning bulletproof vests emblazoned with “IRS-CI” and with fake weapons drawn, they put “Smith” in handcuffs and placed him under arrest.
It was all in a day’s work for the Citizen Academy, which was created to expose students to the work of IRS-CI and financial crime investigations.
“We want to give the students a little sneak peek into what a potential day could look like, and we’re trying to make it engaging,” said Tom Murdock, the special agent in charge in the St. Louis field office. “It’s not just somebody standing up there giving a PowerPoint and saying, ‘This is what you’ll do.’ You actually have a scenario of setup, where the students get information from an informant or somebody who’s providing a tip to us and then taking it from there – the logical steps. ‘Okay, where would you go next? What records would you look at? Who would you want to talk to to corroborate this information?’
“Our hope is that this is more engaging and gets them thinking more like, ‘Hey, I can see myself doing this as a career.’”
They even brought in two Assistant U.S. Attorneys to talk to the students about how IRS-CI works in tandem with the federal prosecutors to combat financial crimes.
Johnna Murray, an associate teaching professor of accounting in the College of Business Administration, helped facilitate the Citizen Academy being held at UMSL. She had brought one of the special agents to campus for an informational talk earlier this year and jumped at the offer to have them return to stage the mock investigation.
“This is an amazing program,” Murray said. “I truly don’t think our students knew everything involved in it.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that Murdock and his team put on the experience at a time when the IRS is actively recruiting and making a push to hire new agents, with a call out for applicants on USAJOBS through the end of the year.
Finding applicants with accounting and other business skills is critical.
“We are financial investigators, so we are really trying to target those students that have a financial background,” Murdock said. “It doesn’t have to be a CPA. You don’t have to be master’s in accounting. We’d love that. But like myself, I don’t have a master’s degree in accounting. My degrees are in economics, but I have the overall business courses that qualified me.
“We’re really looking for smart kids that are interested in business and have that ability then, with their business background, to follow the money, to understand where the money is going and how should it be recorded or how should it be kept. Then we see what’s being done to conceal the funds.”
Truesdale, who is on track to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in accounting next year and her master’s in accounting in 2025 as part of the 2+3 dual degree program, loved taking part in the simulation.
“It was way more interesting than anything in a tax class,” she said. “It was something really different. It was really satisfying. They described it as kind of like a giant puzzle, and it was. It was looking at all the details and finding different things that didn’t add up and kind of tracing everything down.
“It was very satisfying to work it from start to finish.”
For Williams, it helped show her how what she’s been learning in the College of Business Administration can play out in the real world.
“We study different cases of fraud in accounting courses, so we hear about them, but to actually hear and see it and be able to be a cadet for a day, I think was the coolest experience,” she said. “Being able to see basically what we do in class come to life in this type of experience, I think was just really exciting.”
Williams, who is the founding president of the UMSL chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants, is set to graduate later this week with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She plans to sit for the CPA exam later this year and has been accepted into UMSL’s Flex MBA Program.
Her experience in the Citizen Academy gave her something else to think about as she plans for her future career.
“As an accounting student, we are often told to choose one of the other – audit or tax,” she said of the two most prominent paths in the accounting field. “I love that we’re able to start to see different types of accounting as we continue to grow.
“I still want to sit for my CPA. As a black woman, I just think it’s important to have. Only like 2% of us have it. But for people who maybe went down the accounting path and they get to the end and don’t want to sit for the CPA, it is great to know that they’re still an option available for them.”