Soaring rent and legal expenses paid by the Hero Thrill Show Inc., a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides college scholarships to the children of fallen police officers and firefighters, is prompting urgent calls for transparency among people close to local police and fire departments.
The Hero Thrill Show Inc. traces a history going back to the 1940s when it first began to produce shows featuring tricks and stunts by active Philadelphia police officers, state police, and firefighters, using ticket proceeds to fund the scholarships.
For years the nonprofit kept expenses modest, but recently a majority of the organization’s budget is used to pay legal expenses and rent, according to a Broad + Liberty analysis of the nonprofit’s public IRS filings. No ongoing legal proceedings appear to account for this surge in expense.
In 2018 — the last year for which an IRS 990 is available — the HTSI fundraised about $266,000. However, that same year the nonprofit spent a flat $200,000 on legal fees and $56,112 on rent, nearly eclipsing all the monies raised.
The two expense categories total nearly $600,000 combined from 2016 to 2018. Over those same three years, the show fundraised about $709,000.
IRS 990 forms from 2006 to 2010, on the other hand, show that rent was $0 and legal fees were $0 in years 2006, 2007, and 2009.
IRS 990 forms are public documents available through the IRS, or other charity clearinghouse websites like Guidestar or ProPublica. They are intended to be public to encourage transparency, especially so people can examine a charity before giving.
All 990s for the HTSI are linked to at the end of this story. The forms are missing for four years of the nonprofit’s existence.
The scholarships paid out are not always an accurate metric of the nonprofit’s success, many sources said. Because the scholarships are limited to the children of police or firefighters killed in the line of duty, there are occasional years where there are no young people who meet the criterion.
James “Jimmy” Binns is the current executive director of HTSI, a position he has held since at least 2007 according to IRS forms. Binns is one of the most high-profile police advocates in the city and made news when he graduated from the police academy at age 74 in 2013.
But some local first responders are hoping Binns can explain the rise in expenses.
“This is not an FOP event, however we support the Hero Thrill Show on an annual basis,” said John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. “If these reports are correct, we’re concerned about the accounting of Hero Thrill Show revenues. We hope Jimmy can provide a full accounting and explanation for his role at this charity.”
“These figures are alarming, especially the increases and there’s no explanation for how those costs have exploded over the years,” said Mike Bresnan, president of the IAFF Local 22, the Philadelphia firefighters and paramedics union.
‘These figures are alarming, especially the increases and there’s no explanation for how those costs have exploded over the years.’
One Philadelphia police officer, who requested anonymity for fear of career retribution from those still in the department who have loyalty to Binns, told Broad + Liberty the reports raise a variety of concerns.
“I think [the expenses are] hard to justify considering the amount of legal work that’s required to run a charity in this matter. But the numbers keep growing, and I wish somebody would hold Mr. Binns and the charity board accountable,” for the growing expenses, the source said.
Numerous requests for comment from Mr. Binns over the course of several weeks were not returned, including calls to his business line and cell phone, emails, in-person visits to the HTSI’s Center City address, as well as mail by USPS.
A search of the city’s court records shows one active lawsuit in which the Hero Thrill Show is the listed defendant. The suit alleges that in September of 2018, a young girl was posing for a picture next to one of the motorcycles that had been used in the show and suffered a burn from a hot exhaust pipe. The girl’s family is seeking $50,000 in damages.
That suit, however, would be unlikely to account for the legal expenses from 2016-2018, given that the complaint was not filed until 2020.
Additionally, a document filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas last month indicated that the plaintiffs and their lawyers have been trying to serve Binns with the lawsuit for more than a year in locations as near and far as New Jersey to Nevada — to no avail.
Many larger charities in the Philadelphia area manage to operate with much lower expenses, especially legal expenses.
Philabundance, perhaps the most visible and well-known of charities in all Southeast Pennsylvania, spent only $825 on legal fees in 2019. That charity spends over $600,000 on occupancy because it operates two warehouses used to distribute food donations.
CASA Philadelphia, a charity that “trains and supports community volunteers to advance the welfare of children in foster care” had no legal fees in 2019, and spent $31,500 on occupancy that year.
The Cancer Support Community of Greater Philadelphia had about $38,000 in occupancy expenses in 2020 and reported no legal expenses.
Attendance for the Hero Thrill Show was robust in the early decades but has slumped since the late 1990’s. Ticket sales are oftentimes the responsibility of the front-line police and firefighters, the source inside the police department said.
“If your sergeant hands you five tickets to each officer and says, ‘sell them,’ the officer’s not turning back in five tickets,” the source said.
“It’s for the children of firefighters and cops killed in the line of duty. Who wearing a uniform is going to turn that back without the money? So, a lot of us just did a lot of digging in our own pockets, hand it in and we’re done with it. And we give the tickets to our neighbors and our friends and our family. That’s what makes it even more egregious to me that the vast majority of the money earned goes into these administrative fees.”
‘It’s for the children of firefighters and cops killed in the line of duty. Who wearing a uniform is going to turn that back without the money? So, a lot of us just did a lot of digging in our own pockets…’
Binns’ police advocacy has drawn both praise and criticism.
In 2012, Temple University journalism professor George Miller snapped a picture of Binns alongside a Harley Davidson motorcycle he had been riding in the city. Binns and the motorcycle had been outfitted such that they looked nearly identical to a real Philadelphia motorcycle police officer.
“Binns’ costume – because, yes, it is a costume, not a uniform – was the exact same as the actual police officer Binns was hanging with at the coffee shop on 4th Street,” Miller wrote. “The only exception was that Binns sported a white shirt, which I believe is usually reserved for police of a higher rank. The motorcycle Binns was riding was the exact same as well, except that in place of a police logo, there was a Hero Thrill Show logo.”
Because the show involves high-cost equipment like the police helicopter and high-risk stunts like rappelling and motorcycle tricks, hundreds of hours of preparation go into each event, which is yet another point of concern.
“Both departments feel very strongly about this charity, that they’re going to commit a large amount of time, a large amount of equipment, to the charity,” the police source said. “And I bet you it would cost — you know, this is just a guess — I bet it cost the police department $300,000, just for the time that the officers are spending training and performing,” the source said.
“The city doesn’t bill [the show] for their time. So, he’s packaging up a thrill show that costs him practically nothing. And yet the administrative fees are vastly larger than the money that’s going out to pay scholarships.”
The Hero Thrill Show underwent a contentious split starting in 2006 that would ultimately usher in the Binns era of management.
The manager at the time, Ruth Sliwinski, abruptly cancelled the 2006 show and disbanded the charity, citing declining attendance.
Supporters of the show responded by creating the Hero Thrill Show Inc., which Binns would eventually take control of. The previous iteration, known as the Hero Scholarship Fund, is still in existence and provided scholarships as late as 2017. No 990 forms are available after that year.
Both sides became embroiled in a long federal lawsuit in which the Hero Scholarship Fund alleged unfair competition and trademark dilution by the Hero Thrill Show Inc.
Even in 2010 and 2011 as the lawsuit raged, the Hero Thrill Show only listed roughly $50,000 in legal fees, a far cry from the $200,000 in legal fees listed for 2018.
(Editor’s note on 990 forms: Some charities file in the calendar year, from January through December. Others file on a fiscal year basis. For those charities that file on a fiscal year basis, Broad + Liberty has identified the spending or fundraising as coming from the year posted in the top right of the first page of the 990 report.)
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.