Unsealed court records confirm T. Denny Sanford was subject of probe, detail his privacy fight

A 285-page document into a Supreme Court case involving the 85-year-old philanthropist became publicly available for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 17. But the search warrants that prompted the transparency fight remain under a Sioux Falls judge's seal as of Wednesday morning.

T. Denny Sanford, who's given almost $1 billion to namesake Sanford Health, holds a photograph of his mother, Edith, who died when he was 4 years old and inspired him to donate to fight breast cancer. Special to Forum News Service

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Newly unsealed documents confirm that search warrants for the electronic communications of South Dakota billionaire philanthropist and health care system namesake T. Denny Sanford were at the center of a fight over transparency at the state's Supreme Court earlier this year.

However the search warrants and verified inventories — the catalysts of the year-long, high-profile litigation between Sanford's legal team and news media outlets — still remain sealed as of Wednesday morning, Nov. 17.

Referred to only as an "Implicated Individual" in the Supreme Court case file's nomenclature, Sanford was revealed for the first time on Wednesday as the subject of a criminal probe by state law enforcement agents with the Attorney General's Office.

But the 285 pages of an appellate file that the Unified Judicial System unsealed Wednesday morning by order of the Supreme Court reveal that Sanford, who was never charged with a crime, sought to maintain a nondisclosure seal over not only five search warrants, but also the legal proceedings contesting those warrants themselves.

On Oct. 27, the state's, five-member high court ruled unanimously in a closely watched opinion that a protective order on all but the affidavits should be "dissolved" following a 20-day deadline to appeal. Since the summer of 2020, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and ProPublica, a national watchdog news organization, had been seeking to unseal investigatory files, including the contents of a search warrant, in the 2nd Circuit Judicial Court in Minnehaha County.


Even with the release of documents Wednesday, much is still unknown about the nature of that inquiry itself. As was revealed during oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Aug. 25, the AG's Division of Criminal Investigation had brought a search warrant for Sanford's email account to Judge James A. Powers as early as Dec. 9, 2019. Four later search warrants, all approved by Powers in March 2020, OK'd seizing internet and cellular data provider information related to Sanford.

The documents also confirm that Judge Powers in Sioux Falls had, at the request of the AG's office, also sealed all five of those search warrants and verified inventories.

Wednesday's court-ordered unsealing from the Unified Judicial System does offer new details into the legal fight by Sanford and his team to keep the public in the dark about the proceedings. Powers in an October 2020 hearing that acknowledged there'd be "no putting the genie back in the bottle" once documents became unsealed.

In that same hearing before Powers, Sanford's attorney, former South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, told the court that the publication of the documents would "unnecessarily identify a potential crime being investigated," noting that an apparently erroneous caption made by DCI on one file refers to a "defendant."

Months later, in a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Jackley said that Sanford had never been interviewed by law enforcement during the course of the investigation, which was eventually referred to federal authorities.

Jackley responded via email to a request for comment from Forum News Service on Wednesday, Nov. 17 by invoking a statement Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg's office issued last month criticizing "anonymous sources." Jackley also foreshadowed that the search warrants will soon be made public.

"The Attorney General has further acknowledged in the Court filings the headings on the first page of each of the search warrants being released today contain incorrect information," wrote Jackley, noting the investigation into Sanford has "not found information to support criminal charges."

Those search warrants, however, remain sealed.


It has previously been reported by the Associated Press and ProPublica that Sanford had been under investigation for charges related to possible possession of child pornography.

The 85-year-old billionaire is widely associated with the health care system that bears his name, which became Sanford after his $400 million to then-Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System in 2007.

Forum News Service has requested the search warrants be made available by the 2nd Judicial Circuit and will update the story accordingly.

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