T. Denny Sanford search warrants to be made public, South Dakota court rules
The South Dakota Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling published on Thursday said five search warrants into an investigation of T. Denny Sanford's cellular and phone records should be made public within 20 days. Media groups ProPublica and the Argus Leader had sought the records but been blocked by a court-issued gag order.
PIERRE, S.D. — Search warrants related to an investigation into billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford will be made public within the month, according to a ruling Thursday, Oct. 28, from the South Dakota Supreme Court.
The state's high court says a contested state law demanding search warrants and their inventories be public is "clear and unambiguous" and that five warrants filed between December 2019 and spring of 2020 seeking internet and cellular data, as well as an email account, for Sanford should be released within 20 days of the high court's ruling, which is dated Wednesday, Oct. 27.
The court upholds a similar ruling by Minnehaha Circuit Court Judge James Powers.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Mark Salter complimented the "skilled advocacy" of attorneys representing ProPublica and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, as well as former Attorney General Marty Jackley, defense counsel for Sanford, but ultimately stated "[t]here is nothing new or novel about our statutory analysis and conclusion."
Salter said the court's decision came down to a basic formula: "simply read the text and apply it."
In the court records, Sanford is identified only as an "Implicated Individual."
In August of 2020, ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, reported that Sanford had been under investigation for possibly possessing child pornography. ProPublica cited four anonymous sources as part of its report and noted that state investigators obtained a search warrant and ultimately referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation.
Sanford, namesake to the nation's largest rural nonprofit health care system, was not charged with any crimes.
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South Dakota law does allow the sealing of a search warrant "but only until the investigation is terminated," Salter wrote. Given no state or federal prosecutor has brought charges against Sanford, an order sealing the court records "will be dissolved."
The case has largely been shrouded in secrecy , as Judge Powers also entered a gag order on all participants, at the direction of the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, which is under the authority of the Attorney General's office.
Last November, following a ruling in favor of ProPublica and the Argus Leader, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's office and Jackley filed "identical docketing statements" raising legal issues with the lower court's opinion, Salter noted. Eventually, Ravnsborg backed out of the case.
On Thursday, Oct. 28, Ravnsborg issued a statement saying they would provide "no further comments made regarding this case" save for disputing anonymous statements provided to the Associated Press in August.