Fans Flock to Billionaire’s Golf Event Despite Reports of Child Porn Probe

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Amy Sussman/AP
Amy Sussman/AP

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota—Some of the most successful and well-known senior golfers in the world teed off in Sioux Falls on Friday.

They are competing in a tournament that bears the name of a billionaire caught up in a child pornography investigation, but the golfers and fans are more concerned with pars than porn.

T. Denny Sanford, a banker and philanthropist and the richest man in South Dakota, donated $1 billion to a health service that put his name on it. Four years ago, it started the Sanford International, a senior PGA event that has attracted big-name golfers, including major winners Fred Couples, Ernie Els, John Daly and others.

In 2020, it was reported that Denny Sanford had been investigated in South Dakota, Arizona, and California for allegedly accessing child pornography on an electronic device. The South Dakota attorney general’s office handed the case over to the U.S. Department of Justice, but no charges have been filed and officials have been tight-lipped about the status of the case.

On Aug. 24, the South Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments from two media outlets asking it to unseal a search warrant and affidavits in the investigation. Sanford is being represented by former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who is running to return to the office in the 2022 election.

Jackley declined to comment on the matter Friday, but referred back to a previous comment he made in August 2020.

“Although we know very little about any state or federal inquiry relating to Mr. Sanford, we DO know those authorities responsible for investigating allegations obviously did not find information or evidence that supported or resulted in any criminal charges,” he said then.

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Despite this, the golf event, which raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity and brings national attention to South Dakota, has continued. In 2020, it was the first PGA event to allow spectators despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Miguel Angel Jiménez was the winner.

This year, the event started Monday. A three-day tournament teed off Friday, with Jiménez returning to defend his title.

Sanford spokesman Paul Heinert said reports on the investigation have not caused any problems with the tournament.

“There have not been any concerns expressed,” Heinert told The Daily Beast. “This year’s field is the best it has ever been. The top five players in the Charles Schwab Cup standings are playing in the Sanford International this year.”

He did not make any of the golfers available for comment. Emails to several agents were not returned.

Requests to the PGA for comments were unanswered.

Sanford Health President and CEO Bill Gassen said the event is moving forward and Denny Sanford remains a part of it.

“The Sanford International tournament was established by Sanford Health to make a positive and lasting impact in the community and support charitable causes,” Gassen said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “As it relates to Denny Sanford, we took the media reports in the fall of 2020 seriously and are satisfied that those allegations were not substantiated.”

ProPublica and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported last year Sanford had been investigated over suspicions of having accessed child pornography on an electronic device.

Sanford, 85, is the founder and owner of First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard. His net worth is estimated at more than $2.8 billion, primarily from a subprime credit card business that was fostered by South Dakota’s loose rules on interest rates charged by lenders.

His credit cards have charged up to 79.9 percent interest. In 2007, he paid $4.5 million in a settlement reached with the New York Attorney General that alleged deceptive marketing practices.

But in South Dakota, where he has donated hundreds of millions to colleges, health services, a deep underground science lab and more, and has built a gleaming sports arena and athletic fields, he is a popular figure. He’s not a modest one, attaching his name to hospitals, labs and sports venues, and paying to have numerous statues made of himself, some by the same team who created the “Mount Trumpmore” statue that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem gave to then-President Donald Trump.

Denny Sanford has donated to both Noem and Trump, as well as other conservative candidates.

Heinert said Sanford, who has golf shoes with the words “World’s Oldest Living Teenager” emblazoned on them, has been present at Sanford International events this week.

The media reports of the child porn investigation have not impacted the event in any apparent manner, with tickets being snapped up and corporate sponsorships continuing, Heinert said.

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“No, in fact ticket sales are up 30 percent compared to 2020,” he said. “More than 150 local and regional businesses are excited to be involved with the 2021 Sanford International.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken did not return an email or call seeking comment, nor did the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce.

A call to Child’s Voice, a nationally accredited child advocacy center that provides medical evaluations for children who may be victims of abuse and neglect, was met with a brusk, “No thank you” before the call was disconnected.

A Child’s Voice is a Sanford Health agency.

Children’s Home Society CEO Michelle Lavallee, who was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018, did not return calls seeking comments. But locals are talking about the tourney and Denny Sanford on social media.

Connie Struwe-Scherer, 61, of Sioux Falls, wonders why the child porn story was not mentioned in an avalanche of recent stories about the event.

“Wouldn’t that be nice to know?” she told The Daily Beast. “Why did our local media let it fade? Denny Sanford equals money, power and a good old boys club. Pathetic.”

Mark S. Smith, 74, of Huron, South Dakota, has a theory.

“I think he donated his way free,” Smith said.

Several golf fans headed to the tournament Friday morning said they were unconcerned about the probe. All were aware of it, but none said it dissuaded them from attending.

Mike Foster, 65, and Randy Franklin, 68, both of Brookings, South Dakota, drove down for the tourney. They have attended every year, and enjoy seeing the stars compete on a South Dakota course. They also like the fact that it brings money and attention to the state.

They had followed reports of the child pornography investigation but said it wasn’t a factor in their decision to attend.

“Absolutely not,” Franklin said.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Foster said.

John Jacobson, 68, of Mayville, North Dakota, and Travis Eernisse, 40, of Sioux Falls, said they were looking forward to seeing the golfers they have watched on TV in person. They also are appreciative of the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for charities since the event started in 2018.

Matt Sadler, 35, and Kyle Buum, 31, both of Elk Point, South Dakota,, are avid golfers and fans of the sport. They wanted to see Daly, a boisterous, hard-living and long-driving golfer who wears loud clothes and has claimed a pair of major titles.

All four said Sanford’s investigation was not an issue for them. They came to see celebrity golfers.

This is a different tone than last year, when the initial reports about the investigation came out. At the time, Sanford Health President and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft said it was “deeply concerned” with the news.

“Some of you may have already learned through a recent media report of an investigation related to Denny Sanford, a long-time donor to Sanford Health and many other non-profit organizations across the country,” Krabbenhoft wrote in a letter to the system’s “family.”

“Like you, I’m deeply concerned about these reports. There’s nothing more sacred than the innocence of children, and our dedication to their care remains at the very core of who we are as a family,” he wrote. “As you hear of this news, I want you to know that this matter does not involve our health system and we have not been contacted by law enforcement. These reports are unsettling and we take this matter extremely seriously.”

But things soon changed.

On Nov. 24, Krabbenhoft announced he was departing Sanford. The decision was deemed a mutual agreement.

The tourney itself seemed in danger, as Minnehaha Country Club members split 50-50 on renewing a five-year agreement with the tourney, and the club board of directors declined to move forward on an extension. It seemed the 2022 event would be the last.

But, Heinert noted, a two-year extension was reached this summer. The Sanford International was moving forward. Sanford, meanwhile, continues to make huge donations to multiple organizations. He gave $300 million more to Sanford Health in March.

He has vowed to die broke, but his net worth increased in the last year, and politicians and professional golfers continue to rally around him.

For Sanford, it’s par for the course.

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