Monday, November 24, 2014

R.I.P. Ray Farabee: Student spook, state senator, UT's lawyer, good guy

R.I.P., Ray Farabee.

I first met the man in 1989, soon after he'd left the Texas state senate to become general counsel at the University of Texas System. At the time I was co-editor with Tom Philpott Jr., who now writes about food politics and economics for Mother Jones, of an alternative student publication called "Polemicist" that nearly exclusively published investigative reporting and criticism about UT Austin. At the end of the savings-and-loan meltdown and the beginning of Austin's tech boom, that was a wide-open, wild and woolly beat by any standard. (Hardly anyone ever even pretends to cover the university as the major regional political and economic institution it really is, a situation that's equally true today as in the late '80s.)

At the time, Tom and I were reporting on a story that led us to run a background check on Mr. Farabee. We were able to concretely deduce from public records that, while he was President of the National Student Association in the 1960s, Farabee was recruited as an asset by the CIA, as were numerous other student and labor leaders of the era. The idea behind the Cold-War era program was to finance and support anti-communist liberals within student and labor organizations prone to radicalization, if not to alter their positions then at least to monitor their activities.

Today, concealing such youthful connections seems quaint after David Dewhurst was elected to multiple terms as Lieutenant Governor with his main qualifications being a) he was rich, b) he was a competitive calf roper, and c) he'd worked in his twenties as a CIA case officer during an era in which they helped overthrow the government in Bolivia. But this was during the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, years before 9/11, when student groups were actively protesting CIA recruitment and the terms of debate surrounding spooks in public life arguably was less forgiving than now.

Anyway, we went to confront Farabee who, upon seeing the evidence admitted to being recruited by the CIA. However, he said he'd never undertaken the biggest assignment they laid out for him - infiltrating left-wing student groups in Europe - mainly because his father passed away right before he was to have departed.

Farabee politely asked us not to publish the fact of his youthful CIA involvement because, he said, he'd taken an oath (though the whole episode already at that time was a quarter-century old - basically ancient history). That would not have been enough to dissuade us, but he also made a valid argument that the revelation was merely salacious and had nothing to do with the story we were researching, about which his office had turned over hundreds of records and cooperated in full. And finally, perhaps predictably, he offered us another story instead, or at least a lead about the story we were working on, though for the life of me I can't now remember what it was. Much more memorable than those details were my conversations with Tom afterward about whether Farabee's dalliance with the CIA was newsworthy or merely inflammatory.

We decided, rightly or wrongly, that it wasn't news, or at least particularly important news, and for my part I've never mentioned the subject in writing until now. While I covered the university, Farabee treated us fairly, never screwed us over, and always returned phone calls, which from my perspective was about all one could ask. I liked him; in all my dealings with Ray Farabee (the last of which was perhaps 20 years ago), I found him to be an honorable man. I'm sorry to learn of his passing.

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