Unsealed Docs Reveal Investigation Into Child Porn on Billionaire’s Account

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/Reuters
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Multiple images of nude underage girls were found on an email account linked to billionaire banker T. Denny Sanford, according to affidavits released Thursday.

Sanford, the richest man in South Dakota with connections to several powerful officials, was under investigation for three years for accessing and possessing child pornography. No charges were filed in South Dakota after the investigation concluded in May 2022.

Sanford had waged a legal battle for a year to keep the affidavits sealed, despite state law stating they should be released once a decision not to charge him had been made. But on April 6, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a 2022 circuit court ruling that the probable cause documents be released. Sanford had another chance to appeal that decision, but did not.

During the investigation three images of nude underage females, which were repeated in 36 total files, were discovered. The photos show the girls’ bare breasts and vaginas, search warrants said. Their ages were estimated at between 8-12 years old, 10-15 years old, and 12-15 years old, according to an affidavit prepared by South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation Agent Jeff Kollars, who has experience and training in sexual exploitation cases. In 2018, he was nominated for a national award for his work by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Kollars filed the first affidavit in the Sanford investigation on Dec. 9, 2019, and four more on March 12, 2020.

Other nude images of young girls were discovered during the investigation into an AOL email account that Sanford had access to during the time period. In addition, investigators found a photo of Sanford’s driver’s license, a June 2019 letter from the Dalai Lama to Sanford “thanking him for support for a University of California San Diego T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion,” and a hotel receipt in Sanford’s name on the account. It also contained photos of Sanford in an airplane, wearing a hospital gown and sitting at a table.

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His lawyer, Stacy Hegge, released a statement on Thursday: “Mr. Sanford appreciates that after a thorough investigation the authorities concluded there exists no prosecutable offense. Here, because there is no prosecutable case or further action to be taken, the court records being released contain only allegations,” it states. “These preliminary allegations were provided to law enforcement prior to law enforcement’s exhaustive investigation and its realization that various individuals had documented access to the electronic devices at issue, including signs of hacking. While some claim releasing affidavits that reiterate these allegations constitute transparency, releasing preliminary allegations made prior to completing the full investigation only misinforms people and obscures the investigation’s conclusions that no prosecutable offense occurred.”

According to the affidavits unsealed Thursday, the case was launched following a cyber tip sent by Oath Inc., formerly Yahoo! and AOL, to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in July 2019. The center forwarded them to the South Dakota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in August 2019.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told The Daily Beast it received 32 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation on the internet in 2022.

“Because the internet has no jurisdictional borders, our analysts determine where the computer used may be located, then send the tips over secure lines to law enforcement in the appropriate state or country for potential investigation,” according to Patti Davis of the center’s media office. “We’re not involved in those decisions. That’s not our role. Each state has at least one ICAC task force. (Internet Crimes Against Children.) With that many reports, we rarely learn if a case was investigated and prosecuted.”

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 May 2022, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a Republican embroiled in controversy following a fatal car crash that led to his impeachment in June 2022, chose not to bring charges against Sanford, 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 La Jolla, California).

“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,” South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who represented Sanford between terms as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, told The Daily Beast at the time.

In January 2022, Jackley, then a private attorney, released a 30-page report that he said showed Sanford’s email account had been hacked. The report showed emails with the billionaire supposedly asking for money.

Sanford, 87, has donated tens of millions of dollars to organizations and his name has been attached 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.

He and his companies have donated money to Republican politicians—including Gov. Kristi Noem and both of South Dakota’s Republican senators, John Thune and Mike Rounds—and appeared with them in public. But on Aug. 28, 2020, the nonprofit news organization ProPublica revealed that Sanford was under legal scrutiny for possessing and distributing sexual content involving children.

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On Thursday, Jackley’s office released a statement about the affidavits being unsealed.

“In 2019, the Division of Criminal Investigation began investigating whether T. Denny Sanford had possessed child pornography. Search warrants were issued. That investigative file was then forwarded to the United States Attorney office in South Dakota, which forwarded it to the Department of Justice. The file was also forwarded to the authorities in Arizona and California. To date, none of those authorities have lodged charges against Sanford.

“In 2022, after Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was impeached and suspended, his administration issued a statement that it did not find probable cause for criminal charges in the state of South Dakota.”

Noem did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

When South Dakota, eager for investment and new businesses, eased its limits on 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. Then, in 2002, he co-founded First Premier Capital in Minneapolis.

Through his ventures, Sanford became an incredibly wealthy man—but he later vowed to give all of his money away before he died.

During his lifetime, 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 even a science lab in a 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.

Not all his donations, however, bear the addition of his name. After Sanford gave $500 million to National University, 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.

While Sanford has attempted to resume his previous philanthropic schedule, he has not been greeted enthusiastically everywhere he goes.

He attended a black-tie charity ball at the Hotel del Coronado, intended to raise money for the Chadwick Center at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego on Feb. 4, but Voice of San Diego reported that Sanford’s presence was “a point of contention and unbelievable friction.” Efforts were reportedly made to block his access to a VIP reception room.

Natalie Laub, a physician at the Chadwick Center who specializes in child abuse and teaches at UC San Diego, told Voice of San Diego that “her entire table was disturbed by Sanford’s presence and some even walked out. She struggled afterwards with what to tell fellow guests and donors in search of an explanation.”

“What would it look like to a victim of abuse?” she asked. Her husband, documentary filmmaker Andy Laub, described the mood of the evening as weird and the scene as surreal.

So far, Sanford has failed to give away the bulk of his wealth, and his net worth is now estimated at $3.4 billion.

In South Dakota, the statues of Sanford still stand and his name remains emblazoned across the state.

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