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IRS special agents recruit Bemidji State students in 'Adrian Project'

From left, Bemidji State University students Nicki Stajish and Brendin Ketchum role-play as special agents with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit as part of the Adrian Project held Friday at BSU. Bill Maki, BSU's vice-president of finance and administration, right, acts as an informant to the special agents. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

In full uniform, with gold badges clinging to their belts, 11 special agents with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit stood ready as accounting students from Bemidji State University filled the room on Friday.

"Welcome to the Adrian Project," Special Agent Janet Oakes told the more than 80 students, after welcomes from BSU president Jon Quistgaard and College of Business, Technology and Communication Dean James Maxwell.

BSU is the first college-level institution in Minnesota to host the Adrian Project operated by the St. Paul IRS criminal investigation field office.

The Adrian Project, named after its pilot project held in 2002 at Adrian College, Mich., is an IRS investigation simulation exercise run by actual IRS special agents. It is used for recruiting and training purposes for people with interests or backgrounds in accounting and/or criminal justice.

The Project's purpose is to help people understand what the IRS does, what the criminal investigation unit within the IRS handles and what skills are required to work as an IRS special agent.

"It takes a unique individual to become an IRS special agent," Oakes said. "A person has to be proficient in accounting skills as well as retain the knowhow to use a gun or work an investigation undercover."

IRS special agents are law enforcement professionals who investigate tax fraud, money laundering and violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.

"We want to keep the best and brightest people coming in," Oakes said, referring to IRS special agent job applicants. "It's a unique career opportunity and we want to get students more information about it."

Friday's Adrian Project began with Bill Maki, BSU's vice president for finance and administration, impersonating a disgruntled employee from "Cheater's Ice Cream Parlor." Maki's job was to act as an informant to two BSU students dressed as IRS special agent police, while the rest of the accounting students listened closely for details.

For the next three hours, students assumed their roles as special agents, tasked to uncover the truth about "Cheater's Ice Cream Parlor" and its pretend owner.

Throughout the simulation scenario, students learned a variety of IRS investigation techniques, such as issuing search warrants, electronic monitoring equipment, forensic laboratory evidence, surveillance equipment and various undercover methods. In some situations, students had a listening device attached to them.

Trista Knoll and Carla Tuey, seniors studying business administration and finance at BSU, said one of their duties for the Project was to dig through a set-up trash bin to look for relevant documents.

"We had to piece together information we found and had to validate cashier check and tax returns," Knoll said.

"Looking through tax returns would've been tough if we didn't have some kind of background in finance," Tuey added.

Because the IRS has a limited amount of resources to operate promotional activities like the Adrian Project and because it involves real IRS special agents, the IRS field office has to be picky about where and when it can operate the project, Oakes said.

Maxwell said he spent several months pursuing the IRS unit from St. Paul to bring the Adrian Project at BSU for before he was given the "OK."

"I believe in hands-on learning," Maxwell said of why he wanted the Adrian Project at BSU. "Every student has to pay taxes. I also see this as potential sources of internships and employment opportunities."

Students who participated in the Adrian Project were enrolled in one or more business classes instructed by Sandra Kranz, David Massagalia, Mehdi Sheikholeslami and George Gardner.

"It's a virtual-life experience and a potential career path for students, Gardner said. "The IRS has been here before talking to some classes, but this program is fabulous. We are fortunate to have it."