A University of Sussex postgraduate student who was arrested this summer over allegations of fraud is being sought by Sussex police after he failed to answer bail.

Erich Kofmel, a doctoral researcher in Social and Political Thought and co-founder of a controversial research centre, the Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society (SCIS), had been arrested by police in May on suspicion of defrauding people out of thousands of pounds. He was due to report to police on September 9, but did not attend. Two days later, police intended to accost Kofmel at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he was to deliver a lecture. Again, he did not appear.

Kofmel, 33, is being sought by police in relation to allegations that he misled prospective holidaymakers into putting down deposits for holiday rental apartments, before cancelling their booking and keeping the money. A web-based support group for victims of the frauds told The Badger there are “over 100” such victims. The Badger could not reach Kofmel for comment.

The internet is rife with information about the alleged Kofmel frauds. One site shows what purports to be one of Kofmel’s internet classified ads, presenting photos of a resplendent central London studio apartment. The same site shows an e-mail to one of the hapless would-be tenants, ostensibly from Kofmel, explaining that their booking would have to be cancelled – and promising a cheque in the post for their deposit.
The recent developments are just one episode in a series of controversies and legal troubles for Kofmel. In 2006, he was implicated in a similar property scam in which it was alleged that he accepted deposits for tenancies at a London flat, but then rejected the tenants’ applications, keeping most of the deposit as a ‘reference-checking’ fee.  Kofmel was, however, never arrested or charged in relation to the allegations.

A victim support group has placed some blame on the university authorities, whom they say should have removed Kofmel from higher education after the initial reference-checking swindle two years ago, reports of which featured prominently in the national press at the time.

A University of Sussex spokesperson said that whilst they could not comment on individual cases, “we have clear and robust procedures for suspension and other disciplinary sanctions, which are followed where students are judged to be bringing the University into disrepute”. Kofmel is still listed as a current DPhil researcher and as a postgraduate student representative for Social and Political Thought.

The fraud allegations have also brought to the fore the controversy and ambiguity surrounding SCIS, the research centre co-founded by Kofmel on a site adjacent to the university.
SCIS, founded in 2006, was to have “the freedom to pursue daring and unusual research projects outside the prevailing academic discourse at universities,” according to a press release.

But relations with the university soured over SCIS’s continual use of a University of Sussex campus postal address for the supposedly independent research centre. A university spokesperson told The Badger, “the so-called Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society is not a University of Sussex centre. It is not associated with the University in any way and it is not based on our campus. Any contrary impressions given by materials published by SCIS are false, and we are actively seeking correction.”

The litany of troubles for Kofmel has continued as high profile academics whom SCIS had once boasted as comprising its “International Advisory Board” moved to distance themselves publicly from the centre and from Kofmel.

One such academic, Harvard professor Calestous Juma, was reported as having complained to the university after his name was used on the SCIS website. Juma had been under the impression that SCIS was affiliated with the university.

Another professor, Michael Watts, from the University of California, Berkeley, was quoted as saying, “[Kofmel] still insists on using my name on [SCIS’s] website despite repeated requests not to do so”.
Happily for Watts, all of Kofmel’s websites have since been suspended.

Finally, in a bitter twist for Kofmel, SCIS’s other co-founder, former Sussex student Alexander Higgins, published an open letter criticising Kofmel’s actions, in order to “publicly dissociate” himself from the alleged fraudster.

“For my part, I had helped set up SCIS for entirely honourable intentions. For this reason, I have (as have others) chosen to completely dis-associate themselves [sic] from you. We have requested that you remove our information from your various websites but you could not even deal reasonably with those requests,” he said.

All of Kofmel’s websites, including his Sussex staff profile page, have been suspended. An accessible version of his Sussex profile, however, lists his research interests as “anti-democratic” and “anti-egalitarian” thought.

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