SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota investigators probed an email account belonging to billionaire banker-turned philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, as well as his cellular and internet service providers, for possible possession of child pornography, according to search warrants unsealed Wednesday.
The investigation into Sanford was reported last year by ProPublica and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Both news outlets went to court for access to the search warrants. The state Supreme Court ruled last month, in a case that only publicly named an “implicated individual,” to unseal the warrants and the corresponding lists of what investigators found.
The unsealing of the legal documents Wednesday was the first time investigative documents have been released that name Sanford. However, the affidavits from an agent with South Dakota's Division of Criminal Investigation agent will remain sealed until the investigation is concluded or criminal charges are filed, as allowed under state law. The affidavits, which are sworn statements from law enforcement officers, could detail what investigators found and why the billionaire was under investigation.
Sanford came to the attention of investigators in late 2019, according to the search warrants. A Division of Criminal Investigation agent requested a search warrant seeking information relating to an email account associated with him that December. The agent followed up with a request for four more search warrants on his cellular and internet service providers in March 2020.
Sanford has not been charged with a crime and it remains unclear if he will face any charges.
“The ultimate fact remains that the investigating authorities have not found information to support criminal charges,” said Sanford’s attorney Marty Jackley.
The legal form that lists what investigators turned up in their search warrants — known as a “verified inventory” — did not detail what investigators found, but indicated that reports and documents from Sanford’s cellular and internet providers had been attached to an investigative report.
Jackley also pointed out that Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s office called statements on the investigation from anonymous sources inaccurate.
Ravnsborg had determined there was sufficient evidence to move toward prosecuting Sanford last year, two people briefed on the matter by law enforcement previously told the Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
However, the attorney general passed the case to the U.S. Department of Justice because it spanned to Arizona, California and Nebraska, according to both people. Federal prosecutors have given no indication that they are bringing charges against Sanford.
The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an email from Ravnsborg released Wednesday, the attorney general told a South Dakota judge last year that “multiple states and jurisdictions” were involved and that he would need to consult with the DOJ about the request to access the search warrants.
The 85-year-old is the state’s richest man, worth an estimated $3.4 billion. He made a fortune as the founder of First Premier Bank in South Dakota, which is known for issuing high-interest credit cards to those with poor credit.
In recent years, he has focused on philanthropy as part of a mission to “die broke.” His name adorns dozens of buildings and institutions in South Dakota and beyond.
Sanford’s philanthropic largesse has increased in recent months. This year alone, he has announced donations of $650 million to Sanford Health, which changed its name in 2007 to reflect its largest benefactor. He also gave $100 million to South Dakota's government for a college scholarship endowment.