Accounting class “whodunit”

Seven UGA students brandishing rubber guns and wearing bulletproof vests burst into a room marked “Cheater’s Lounge.”

“This is the Internal Revenue Service; stay right where you are,” one yelled to three IRS agents posing as criminals. “We have a warrant.”

Within seconds, the agents were handcuffed and led outside, while the students, all part of a summer semester course on forensic accounting in the Terry College of Business, searched the room for telltale documents of tax fraud.

If that day was unlike most days in a business class, it was because of the Adrian Project, a day-long program operated by the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Division that invited UGA students to solve simulated criminal cases using strategies and techniques common to real-life IRS cases.

“It was a perfect fit for this class,” said course instructor Tina Carpenter, associate professor and Ernst and Young Teaching Fellow in the Terry College of Business J.M. Tull School of Accounting. “We do one case throughout the course, so they already have a few ideas about what to do and how to follow a trail.”

Carpenter’s forensic accounting students were asked to play the roles of IRS investigators to solve four separate cases. The students sifted through trash bags for evidence, tailed suspects and wore wires for undercover surveillance.

“Some of the cases are fairly straightforward as to what the crime is; others actually have a combination of different crimes, and part of the teaching point is to help the students figure out which laws have been violated and what types of evidence you need to prove that in court,” said Bryant Brooks, a special agent in the IRS Criminal Investigation field office in Atlanta who helped oversee the project.

“Some students may be working on a crime that involves refund fraud; other teams may be investigating tax evasion,” he continued. “Different federal statutes apply to different crimes. Some cases may involve money laundering, which is not necessarily related to tax evasion, but is part of the financial crimes that we investigate.”

Since its inception about 10 years ago, the Adrian Project has become an opportunity to expose students to careers in forensic accounting, while helping the IRS promote itself.

“We can’t really publicize the cases we solve,” said Brooks. “So this became a way for us to get the word out about what we do and potentially recruit students who may be interested in pursuing this kind of work.”

If the reactions at UGA are any indication, that strategy is working.

“Quite typically, this is the students’ first exposure to (forensic accounting),” said Carpenter. “I find that on the first day of class, when I ask the question, ‘How many of you are interested in these types of careers?’ about 90 to 95 percent of them are going into public accounting and have no real interest in pursuing this field. But when you circle back around at the end of the class…you get answers like, ‘I’m thinking about it.’ I’ve had several students go into public accounting and then go back out of it and try to pursue a forensic accounting route.”

Whit Roper, a student taking part in the project, said it made him more seriously consider a forensic accounting career. “We found solid evidence against our suspect, and went to the judge to get a warrant,” he said. “I think it’s a lot more interesting than doing straight auditing work.”