Billionaire Denny Sanford Is Off the Hook in Child Porn Probe

·7 min read
Star Tribune via Getty
Star Tribune via Getty

SIOUX FALLS—Billionaire Denny Sanford, South Dakota’s richest man, is off the hook in a long-running child porn probe after the state’s assistant attorney general on Friday found he’d committed “no prosecutable offenses.” The banker and philanthropist has been at the center of an investigation since the summer of 2020, after investigative reporting outlet ProPublica reported that Sanford was under legal scrutiny on suspicion of possessing and distributing sexual content involving children.

On Friday, as the long Memorial Day weekend started and few people were following the news, South Dakota Assistant Attorney General Brent Kempema said “there are no prosecutable offenses within the jurisdiction of the state of South Dakota.”

Kempema said the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation had wrapped up its investigation into Sanford. South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg is not currently involved, since he has been impeached for a 2020 fatal car crash and is suspended from duty pending a June 21-22 trial in the state Senate.

Sanford lawyer Marty Jackley, a former South Dakota attorney general seeking a return to the office, said his client was glad for this statement from the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office.

“Mr. Sanford appreciates the public acknowledgement by the SD Attorney General’s office that the DCI has concluded its investigation and they have found no prosecutable crime,” Jackley told The Daily Beast.

Judge Power stated in an email that the affidavits that led to the search warrants being issued would be released on Tuesday. They have been withheld from the public and media.

“Per our previous hearings, I would expect that the affidavits in support of search warrants to be unsealed at some point on Tuesday,” Power said.

However, Stacey Hegge, another of Sanford’s lawyers, quickly offered a motion to delay the release, according to a Sioux Falls Argus Leader report.

The case has been major news in South Dakota for two years, since Sanford, 86, is the richest man in the state and has emblazoned his name across it. For two decades, the name Sanford has been added to hospitals, clinics, laboratories, stadiums, ballfields and more. Large statues of him, some with children, dot the landscape in Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city. He has been the subject of numerous media reports listing his massive donations.

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But the headlines and TV reports weren’t as positive after ProPublica broke the news on Aug. 28, 2020, that Sanford was at the center of a child porn probe.

In December 2019 and March 2020, five search warrants seeking information from emails, internet logs and phone data were approved by Minnehaha County, S.D., Circuit Court Judge James Power and served on Sanford, Midcontinent Communications, his internet provider, and Verizon, his cell phone company.

Investigators wanted to learn about events on June 27, 2019, and phone calls, messages and location data from that date and two others. Sanford was not mentioned by name in documents made public, which referred to him as the “Implicated Individual” until November 2021.

In 2020, Ravnsborg chose not to bring charges, but the state DCI continued its probe.

Ravnsborg said the investigation also encompassed Arizona, California, and Nebraska. Sanford has homes in Sioux Falls, Scottsdale, Arizona, and Vail, Colorado.

Jackley declined to say if investigations in the other states also will conclude without charges being filed.

“You would have to ask the attorney general that question,” he told The Daily Beast.

Sanford, a St. Paul, Minnesota native, made billions through his companies First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard, which offered high-interest credit cards to people with low credit scores.

He got his start in business in the late 1950s with Armstrong Cork Co. as a sales and marketing manager. In 1960, he formed a manufacturer's representative company, promoting technical construction products through architects and engineers.

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In 1971, he purchased Contech, a chemical company, from Sears, Roebuck, and took it public at $5 per share. A decade later, he sold it at $35 per share and formed Threshold Ventures, a venture capital company.

When South Dakota, eager for investment and new businesses, eased the limits in the interest rates banks could charge, Sanford purchased United National Bank in Sioux Falls, later renaming it First Premier Bank, and began providing credit to people who didn’t have sterling credit reports. The interest rates were high, and so were the profits.

In 2002, he co-founded First Premier Capital in Minneapolis. Sanford had become a very wealthy man, and he vowed to give the money away before he died. He has failed to do so, and his wealth is now estimated at $3.4 billion.

During his lifetime, however, Sanford has donated more than $2 billion to a variety of organizations and causes, and has seen his name attached to health-care facilities, stadiums and the science lab at the former gold mine.

In 2016, he told AP he wanted to help people in his final years rather than merely indulging himself with his wealth.

“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,” Sanford said.

Sanford is the namesake of the Sanford Underground Research Facility, known as the Sanford Lab, in Lead. He donated $70 million, a figure matched by the state of South Dakota, to convert the former Homestake Gold Mine into a lab for sensitive physics experiments free from the sun’s high-energy cosmic radiation. Researchers also study geology, biology and engineering at the site, dedicated in 2007 by Sanford and then-Gov. Mike Rounds, who is now a U.S. senator.

Sanford won praise and the support of politicians he donated to, including Rounds, Sen. John Thune, and other candidates and campaign committees, all Republican or conservative.

He had a major health-care organization—formerly Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System—change its name to his. Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, has been a special project for Sanford.

He has given more than $1 billion to the organization, including a $400 million gift in 2007, which led to the name change, $100 million to create a breast cancer foundation named for his mother Edith, who died of the disease when he was 4, and $125 million to create its Imagenetics program. It has received an additional $650 million within the last year.

The University of South Dakota School of Medicine changed its name to the Sanford School of Medicine in 2006. Large donations to the Mayo Clinic and the Bethesda Hospital in his native St. Paul also caused facilities to carry his name.

He has donated $20 million to the still-unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, $30 million to Dakota State University to build the Madison Cyber Labs, $30 million to the San Diego Zoo and another $30 million to the Horatio Alger Fund for college scholarships.

Sports also have been an interest, and he offered $35 million to the University of Minnesota for naming rights to its new football stadium. That deal, however, fell through, but Sanford, a 1958 UM graduate, still donated $12 million to TCF Bank Stadium, which named its hall of fame in his honor.

The Sanford Sports Complex in Sioux Falls includes the Sanford Pentagon, which contains several basketball courts and offices, the Sanford Fieldhouse, sports academies, training facilities and more, with new baseball, softball and soccer fields being constructed.

Sanford was an avid golfer at the Westward Ho Country Club, now called The Country Club of Sioux Falls. A professional golf event, the Sanford International, attracts the best senior golfers in the world to the Minnehaha Country Club each year, and receives some national media attention. Despite the negative publicity, big-name golfers continued to compete in the event in 2020 and 2021.

The Denny Sanford PREMIER Center is a 12,000-seat multipurpose facility that houses sporting events, concerts, conventions, meetings, banquets and more. His name is ubiquitous in Sioux Falls and across the state.

Not all his donations led to the addition of his name. Sanford has given $500 million to National University, and the San Diego-based school announced plans to change its name to Sanford National University.

But after the child pornography reports appeared, that proposal was dropped.

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