Intellectual Firepower

UAB Accounting Graduate Turns IRS Investigator

By Caperton Gillett

Assuming you haven’t recently attempted to defraud the government, you probably would enjoy meeting Donald Smith. The 2006 UAB accounting graduate is a special agent in the Birmingham office of the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). But the popular image of the IRS agent in short-sleeved shirt and Coke-bottle glasses, “collecting taxes and maybe harassing a few people,” as Smith says, doesn’t fit this unfailingly polite—and well-dressed—guy.

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He may not fit the stereotypes of an IRS agent or a CPA, but Donald Smith uses his accounting degree from UAB to track down money launderers and drug traffickers through his role as an agent in the IRS's Criminal Investigation Division.

His job description isn’t exactly in line with conventional wisdom, either. Although Smith says he draws on his UAB accounting training daily, he spends more time out in the field than hunched over a calculator. And when push comes to shove, he can deploy something more effective than intellectual firepower: a .40 caliber Glock handgun.

By the Books

The role of the CID, Smith explains, is to apprehend and prosecute criminals who commit financial fraud. That means he spends much of his time soliciting testimony from witnesses and victims of fraud. “Particularly with victims, I tell them, ‘I’m here as a friend to help you out. All I need is for you to tell me what happened to cause you this kind of distress.’ I try to come across as the nice guy from the IRS.” When he is dealing with criminals—including drug traffickers and money launderers—a different persona emerges, however. “I always talk to people with the utmost respect, but my job is to gather evidence.”

As an accounting student at UAB, Smith had no idea that he would end up as a combat-trained G-man. “I’d been thinking about a Big Four accounting firm, sitting behind a desk counting beans,” he says. That all changed in an internal-auditing class led by Debbie Tanju, Ph.D., professor of accounting at the UAB School of Business (now retired). Tanju gave Smith information about internship opportunities with the IRS, and the CID intrigued him. “Being able to use my accounting degree in a law-enforcement capacity piqued my interest.”

On the first day of his internship, “I saw people with guns. I said, ‘I thought I was at the IRS. What’s going on?’” Smith says. He soon gained a comprehensive understanding of the CID’s law-enforcement role, however. He was able to assist senior agents in talking with witnesses and shadow them as they executed search warrants and arrest warrants, and to participate in firearm and self-defense training. “After experiencing all of that, I was sold,” he says.

Special Agent Man

Smith graduated in August 2006 and within weeks began his six-month training period at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia, which prepares new recruits for dozens of government agencies.

The first three months “felt like a police academy,” Smith recalls. He and his fellow recruits studied the Fourth Amendment—protection from unreasonable search and seizure—performed mock investigations, and undertook extensive firearms training. “There was a lot of running,” Smith says. “You get used to it good and quick.” Recruits also were doused with pepper spray, he adds, “which you never get used to.”

Smith’s UAB-acquired accounting background—“being able to look at balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements and analyze bank records” is a bedrock part of his day-to-day work, he says. But there is much more to the job than crunching numbers; in fact, the variety is one of the most appealing aspects of life as a special agent, Smith notes. He may spend one day out interviewing witnesses and the next behind his desk, at which point he may get a last-minute call to execute a search warrant.

On one occasion, he was called to the scene of a crime just down the street—an irate taxpayer had driven his truck into the front of the local IRS building, and Smith was called upon to make the arrest. Another time, his quick eye led to an arrest following a stakeout—Smith identified an out-of-town suspect solely by his Kansas City Chiefs hat. “I don’t know of many jobs where you can do that with an accounting degree,” he says.

More Information

UAB School of Business