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April 13, 2010

NIU Accountancy students swap spreadsheets for handcuffs

DeKalb, Ill. — Accounting students at Northern Illinois University started their class work on March 27 by learning how to properly apply handcuffs to a suspected drug dealer.

Accountancy students are sworn in during the March 27 Project Adrian at NIU

That is not a typical part of the curriculum, but this was not your typical accounting class. The demonstration was part of Project Adrian, a day-long event that allowed 80 students to work side-by-side with 40 special agents from the Internal Revenue Service in a series of simulations designed to give them a taste of a career in accounting that many had never contemplated.

Most of the students participating were enrolled in a forensics accounting course at NIU.

“Forensic accounting is using accounting skills to gather evidence to be used in a court of law or to solve disputes. It’s just like what you see on the crime scene investigation shows, but we focus on the financial records. We follow the money,” explains Professor Chih-Chen Lee who teaches the course.

The Project Adrian visit was an opportunity for students to see that what they learn in the classroom is actually applied in the real world.

“Most people, when they think about the IRS, think of audits or walking into an office for help with a form, they don’t think about investigations,” says Jim Hite, a supervisory agent for the IRS who directs investigations from an office in Downers Grove. “Most students have no idea that an accounting degree can open the door to a career like this.”

Even though the Criminal Investigations Unit is only involved in one in every 60,000 IRS cases, they play an important role for the IRS. They also often assist other agencies (local, state and federal) in pursuing and prosecuting an array of criminals. On any given day (as the students learned from the simulations they carried out) an agent might be tracking down individuals fraudulently claiming multiple tax refunds; cornering business owners trying to hide profits on a second set of books; pursuing gamblers concealing winnings; or busting drug dealers hiding their ill-gotten gains.

“That’s what we do. We perform the detailed financial investigations that follow money from Point A to Point B, and we put bad guys in jail,” said Lucy Cruz, assistant special agent in charge of the IRS Criminal Investigation region that covers northern Illinois.

NIU was selected as a host for the exercise (which takes place at a handful of universities each year) because of it is accounting program, which is ranked among the top 25 in the nation. The agents told students that the skills they learn in the classroom would be an important part of life as a special agent. Reviewing bank records, tax documents and other forms of financial paper makes up about 60 percent of the job, Hite said.

The other 40 percent has just about nothing to do with anything covered in a standard accounting course. It’s not unusual for an IRS special agent to devote time to conducting surveillance, going undercover to gather information, assisting in drug busts, conducting raids and making arrests. As part of Project Adrian, NIU students got to experience all of those things, under simulated conditions. While the day included some number crunching, it was the police activities that intrigued students the most.

Students participated in surveillance activities (some even “wore wires”), conducted arrests, and questioned suspects. They even experienced simulated fire-arms training.

“It’s exciting. You’re always doing something different,” said Lindsey Wedow, a senior from Warrenville, who is enrolled in a forensic account course at NIU. Her case involved a gambler hiding winnings from the IRS. “You’re out in the field, you get to seize assets – you’re not stuck behind a desk.”

Brad Saxon, a junior accounting major from Schaumburg, isn’t enrolled in the forensic accounting course, but jumped at the opportunity to participate. He has had an interest in combining accounting and law enforcement since high school. “I was thinking about pursuing a career in fighting white collar crime with the FBI, but this is just as exciting,” said Saxon, who was impressed by the meticulousness that agents applied to make their cases. “I am looking for an environment that is always changing and interesting, and this meets those qualifications.”

Lee had a handful of students approach her after the Project Adrian event saying that they thought working as an IRS special investigator might be a career for them. “I had one student who said that he had been feeling like accounting was not the career for him, but that this experience had changed his mind,” she says.

While the day was most definitely “non-traditional” NIU College of Business Dean Denise Schoenbachler was excited to host the Project Adrian.

“We love to talk about the college being the place where the classroom meets the real world, and this is a perfect example of that,” says Schoenbachler. “Our students are always exposed to careers in public accounting and corporate accounting, and this opened their eyes to a whole new aspect of accounting.”

A video account of the project is available online.

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Media Contact: Joe King, NIU Media Relations and Internal Communications
Phone: (815) 753-4299
Email: joking@niu.edu