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Court records show emails and phone data searched in probe of South Dakota billionaire Denny Sanford

ProPublica won access to search warrants showing a child pornography investigation of South Dakota’s richest man, confirming our reporting from last year.

T. Denny Sanford
T. Denny Sanford made his fortune in credit cards; he controls First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard, a major issuer of high-interest credit cards for high-risk borrowers.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

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Authorities seized phone, email and internet data in a child pornography investigation of South Dakota’s richest person, T. Denny Sanford, according to court records obtained by ProPublica.

The records, which were kept under seal for more than a year, confirm ProPublica’s reporting from last year on the existence of the investigation. The search warrants were unsealed after a unanimous ruling last month by the South Dakota Supreme Court, which affirmed what ProPublica had argued when it first tried to obtain the records last summer: that search warrants and related documents are available to the public under state law.

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No charges have been filed and the status of any investigation is unclear. In a statement, Sanford’s lawyer, Marty Jackley, declined to address Sanford’s underlying conduct. “The ultimate fact remains that the investigating authorities have not found information to support criminal charges,” Jackley said.

It was Jackley, a former state attorney general who is running to reclaim the position in 2022, who asked a judge to stop ProPublica from reporting on the Sanford investigation last year.

“This is an extraordinary victory for press freedom and the public’s right to know how the government investigates society’s most powerful,” ProPublica’s general counsel, Jeremy Kutner, said. “But the road was a deeply troubling one. We battled under near-total secrecy for over a year, overcoming attempts by a billionaire to keep us from publishing and to have us held in contempt, and a bar on talking about the case itself, all to free information a state law said we should have had all along. We are grateful that the courts ultimately championed openness, but 15 months in the shadows is far too long.”

Sanford, 85, is a towering presence in South Dakota, and he maintained relationships with powerful government and business leaders even after ProPublica first reported on the child pornography investigation in August 2020. This March, Gov. Kristi Noem met with Sanford to accept $100 million in scholarship funds from him and his companies. A spokesperson for Noem, who is widely viewed as a rising star in the Republican Party, did not immediately respond to questions.

Sanford made his fortune in credit cards; he controls First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard, a major issuer of high-interest credit cards for high-risk borrowers. He became one of the country’s top philanthropists, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to children’s organizations and other charitable groups, including a major hospital system based in South Dakota that bears his name. He has supported Republican candidates and causes, and he has ties to top state and federal political figures.

The warrants reveal new details about the investigation.

South Dakota’s Division of Criminal Investigation obtained five search warrants for emails, internet logs and phone data. The warrants name Sanford “in the matter of possession and distribution of child pornography” and indicate that investigators and a judge concluded there was probable cause to believe that the data would contain evidence of a crime. The affidavits describing the basis for probable cause were not disclosed.

The first search warrant, from December 2019, sought email records, including messages, images and location logs, linked to an AOL account throughout 2019. Investigators followed up in March 2020 with three more search warrants that zeroed in on specific times: internet signatures at two specific seconds on June 27, 2019, and phone calls, messages and location data on that date and two others.

The documents do not specify what, if anything, investigators found in the searches. They also do not reveal what initially prompted the investigation.

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Acting on a tip, ProPublica originally called the county courthouse in Sioux Falls to obtain the search warrants in July 2020. An official in the clerk’s office initially said no records related to Sanford could be found in their system. A source outside the office told ProPublica that the clerk’s office became concerned that the request had been improperly denied. When ProPublica called back again the next week, the clerk’s office said it needed permission from the judge to release the records.

The judge, James Power, invited ProPublica, the state’s attorney general and Sanford to make arguments on whether to unseal the records. Sanford’s lawyer, Jackley, then asked the judge to block ProPublica’s reporting and publication. “Freedom of the press is not an absolute right,” Jackley wrote, calling into question the integrity of the criminal investigation given that ProPublica had learned about it through sources. “And under the troubling circumstances of this situation, a restraint on ProPublica’s publication is appropriate.”

The judge recognized ProPublica’s First Amendment right to report and publish what it learned independently, but he kept the case under seal while the proceedings continued.

Even without the warrants, in August 2020 ProPublica was able to report, citing four sources familiar with the probe, that Sanford was investigated for possible possession of child pornography. The state attorney general had been overseeing the case before referring it to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation. Federal authorities have not indicated what they’ve done with the case. A DOJ spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

After the story was published, Sanford filed a motion with the judge asking for ProPublica to be held in contempt. The judge refused, and he ultimately ruled that the records should be released. Sanford appealed to the state Supreme Court but lost in a ruling filed on Oct. 27. “The question we confront here is not a close one,” the court wrote, ruling that the state law clearly says search warrants are public records. The Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, joined the case on ProPublica’s side.

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After ProPublica’s story published, some of the beneficiaries of Sanford’s charity initially distanced themselves. The San Diego-based National University announced it was holding off on plans to rename itself after Sanford. Sanford Health, the hospital system named after the billionaire, said it was “deeply concerned” and that “there’s nothing more sacred than the innocence of children.” But the hospital chain went on to accept more than $650 million from Sanford, with its CEO saying, “We took those media reports seriously and are satisfied that they were not substantiated.” In a statement to ProPublica Wednesday, the CEO, Bill Gassen, stood by that remark and added, “We are grateful for Mr. Sanford’s generosity and the many ways his commitment to Sanford Health will benefit our region for generations to come.”

Academic and research institutions across the country are named after Sanford. In South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, the 12,000-seat indoor sports and events arena bears Sanford’s name, as do several of the largest buildings in town. Outside the castle-like Sanford Children’s Hospital, a statue named “For the Love of Children” depicts Sanford kneeling beside two small boys and a girl. Another statue, “Chasing Dreams” at the Sanford Sports Complex, portrays children running toward the billionaire with basketballs.

“My primary bent, in terms of philanthropy, is directed at small children, to give them the opportunity to realize a full life,” he told the Argus Leader in 2004.