SD Supreme Court: Search warrants in T. Denny Sanford investigation will be unsealed

October 29, 2021

PIERRE, S.D. – Search warrants will be unsealed in an investigation into billionaire banker-turned philanthropist T. Denny Sanford for possible possession of child pornography, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled.

The unanimous ruling, dated Wednesday and announced Thursday, upheld a lower court ruling that said state law prohibits courts from sealing search warrants and the corresponding lists of what investigators found. The affidavits supporting the search warrants will remain sealed until the investigation is concluded or criminal charges are filed, as allowed under state law.

“Notwithstanding the skilled advocacy on behalf of the parties, the question we confront here is not a close one,” Justice Mark Salter wrote, adding that state law and court rules are clear. “With the exception of the affidavits in support of the five search warrants, our current order sealing the Supreme Court clerk’s appellate file will be dissolved following the expiration of the time for petitioning for rehearing or the resolution of a petition seeking rehearing, provided we do not grant the petition.”

Under state law, Sanford’s attorneys have 20 days to ask the court to reconsider.

The investigation into Sanford was reported last year by ProPublica and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Court documents in the case are sealed and refer only to “an implicated individual” — both news outlets went to court for access.

Sanford has not been charged with a crime. His attorney, former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, did not mention Sanford by name but released a statement saying: “The ultimate fact remains that the investigating authorities have not filed any criminal charges.”

Jon Arneson, an attorney for the Argus Leader, said the opinion’s conclusion “is a very lucid explanation of why we prevailed.” The state attorney general’s office had no comment on the ruling.

Sanford, 85, is the state’s richest man and is worth an estimated $2.8 billion. He has vowed to “die broke,” and his name adorns dozens of buildings and institutions in South Dakota and beyond.

Even after the investigation was reported last year, Sanford donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the South Dakota government and the state’s largest employer, Sanford Health. Some organizations, universities and governments stopped accepting Sanford’s donations. But in South Dakota, some of the state’s top lawmakers, including Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, have not distanced themselves from him.

ProPublica first reported that South Dakota investigators had obtained a search warrant, citing four unidentified sources. Two people briefed on the matter by law enforcement have previously confirmed the existence of the investigation to The Associated Press. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

Sanford’s electronic devices came to the attention of investigators from the state attorney general’s office after a technology firm reported that child pornography had either been sent, received or downloaded on his device, according to one of the people who spoke to the AP.

Sanford told the AP in 2016 that he wanted his fortune to have a positive impact on children after his hardscrabble childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 4, and by the time he was 8, Sanford was working in his father’s clothing distribution company.

“You can only have so many cars and all of that kind of stuff so put it into something in which you can change people’s lives,” he said in 2016.