Who’s on Watch? Q&A with BGA Lawyer Matt Topic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Better Government Association is shifting gears to help inform the public about the government's role and actions during the crisis. We (virtually) sat down with BGA attorney Matt Topic to ask him how he is responding to the coronavirus.

Tell folks about your pre-coronavirus work for the BGA?

I’ve been the BGA’s Outside General Counsel for over 6 years, and have been representing the BGA in Freedom of Information Act suits nearly my entire career as an attorney. My views here are my own, not necessarily those of the BGA or any other client.

How are you doing things differently in light of the pandemic?

I lead a team of six attorneys and paralegals at a firm of over 80, Loevy & Loevy. Our office has been closed, and we’ve all been working remotely, for over a week.

What most concerns you about the way government is responding to COVID-19?

One is that the President of the United States consistently provides inaccurate information, coupled with the fact that some federal agencies are shutting down their FOIA operations entirely, which will be abused. I was very concerned when the City of Chicago stopped processing FOIA requests, but am glad to see the Mayor responded to significant public pushback and has reopened FOIA operations. I hope we take two lessons from that: people in charge of FOIA don’t think it’s an “essential” operation, but we have the power to force our elected officials to do right by us more often than we realize. We’re all going to have to be patient and make adjustments, but government secrecy in the time of a pandemic is a terrible idea.

What government response to COVID-19 do you think has been most/least effective?

I’m not very qualified to answer that question and I don’t think we can judge it yet. But the fact that federal, state, and local governments have now had months to get ready and still don’t have enough equipment is a failure. I don’t think the tussle between Governor Pritzker and the President is helpful, though I certainly understand and share the Governor's frustration. Please tell me we’ve not been relying on the federal government for the last two months!  

Who are you most worried about during this outbreak?

Obviously people in ICUs around the world first and foremost. But also, we are sending nurses and doctors into a pandemic without enough protective gear. If our government hasn’t even gotten that right, I fear not only what else about the pandemic will go wrong, but how many other threats we face for which we’ve failed to prepare. Ultimately, I have faith in the people of Illinois to adapt and get through these problems, whether the government does its job or not, but that only works if we have much better access to government records and information.


As the BGA adapts to the growing challenges facing our community. We want to make sure we are covering the stories that matter most to you. If you have questions about the government's response to the outbreak, visit the "What The Gov?" section of the website. You ask. We investigate.
 

Matt Topic is a Chicago-area attorney in private practice and Outside General Counsel of the Better Government Association. He practices at a firm that represents victims of civil rights violations, Loevy & Loevy.