Newly available IRS tax forms for the Hero Thrill Show Inc. indicate the nonprofit continued to spend well over six figures in legal fees in 2019 and 2020, even though the longtime Philadelphia tradition did not appear to be directly dealing with any litigation in those years.
The new documents paint a five-year picture in which the Hero Thrill Show Inc. spent just shy of $1 million on questionable legal fees and overhead expenses, which the show’s president and CEO, James “Jimmy” Binns, has refused to justify.
The developments underscore a 2021 report from Broad + Liberty identifying hundreds of thousands of dollars of questionable spending by the show, mainly on legal fees and overhead.
The Hero Thrill Show Inc. is the 501(c)3 nonprofit that currently operates and promotes a decades-old show featuring skill exhibitions and tricks by Philadelphia Police and Fire departments with proceeds funding scholarships for children of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
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The latest tax forms, commonly referred to as a 990, show scholarships are still being funded, but the nonprofit has operated at a loss for the last three years for which documents are available — losses that could be averted if the legal and overhead expenses were eliminated or ameliorated.
(All 990 forms for the HTSI are linked at the end of this article).
The HTSI has shown a frugal mindset in the past.
Across the four years of 2006–09, the HTSI listed only $800 total in legal fees and occupancy costs, the latter of which is a category that includes rent and other items associated with maintaining a physical office, which the HTSI does not appear to do.
Those spending patterns began to seriously shift in 2011, however. That year, the nonprofit recorded spending $165,000 in rent, and just over $33,000 in legal expenses.
The nonprofit’s financials became a mystery in the next four years from 2012–15, as the HTSI did not appear to file 990s as required by law. When the disclosures finally resumed in 2016, the HTSI was spending well in excess of $110,000 every year on legal expenses, despite the fact that it does not appear the HTSI was facing lawsuits of any kind.
In 2018, the spending reached a new high as legal fees and rent totaled $256,000.
For the newly released 990 forms, 2019 showed the nonprofit spending over $200,000 in legal fees and rent. That was roughly four times the amount paid out in scholarships for the same year — $56,668.
Then in 2020, that total dipped slightly to about $180,000. The expenses were listed as “management fees” but it should not be ruled out that the categorization of that spending could have been in error, as “legal fees” is the line directly above management.
The show has faced a host of difficulties over the decades such as shifting venues, overcoming changes in public tastes, managing occasional scandals, and managing the fallout from power struggles over who should lead the tradition that dates back to the 1950s.
When the show nearly went under in Jan. 2006, Binns took over. Binns is well known for his police advocacy, especially his work placing “Hero Cop” plaques across the city marking where certain officers were killed in the line of duty. He was also well known for his time as a boxing commissioner and for a brief cameo role in two of the Rocky franchise movies.
Binns, who is also a lawyer, is listed as being “special counsel” for the Beasley Firm LLC, on Walnut Street, which is the same address Binns has been listing for the HTSI since 2018.
Email, phone call, and text message requests for comment to Mr. Binns using contact information he freely provides on his own website were not returned. A call to the phone number listed on the most recent 990 was answered by the Beasley Firm, where the person answering the call redirected us to use the same phone number listed on Binns’ website.
Across a span of two years now, Binns has not answered multiple questions from Broad + Liberty as to whether he is the attorney providing the legal services which are costing the show hundreds of thousands of dollars, or if he is paying some kind of rent at the Chestnut St. location.
Efforts to obtain comment from some board members listed on the 2020 990 form were either not returned or were not successful.
The HTSI’s core “expense” — the entertainment provided by Philadelphia police officers and firefighters — is essentially donated by the city. That includes hundreds of man hours preparing for the show which is usually put on in September.
A review of Philadelphia’s civil lawsuit database as well as of the federal Eastern District of Pennsylvania have only yielded one lawsuit that the Hero Thrill Show has faced at any time in Binn’s tenure as president.
That case was filed in Sept. 2020, and alleged that the show was liable for a young girl who had accidentally burned herself on the hot tailpipe of a police motorcycle used in the event.
While the case did first emerge in 2020, a document from the case appears to show that more than thirteen months after the suit was filed, the plaintiffs still had not successfully served Binns with the legal papers. With that information in hand, it’s relatively safe to conclude that Binns and the HTSI didn’t begin to incur any legal expenses on the suit until Oct. 2021, or even after that.
Subsequent filings show an arbitrator awarded $50,000 to the minor plaintiff and her family to be paid by the HTSI, while also absolving the City of Philadelphia, who had also been listed as a defendant, of any responsibility.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports