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National University holds off on name change after reports of T. Denny Sanford investigation

La Jolla philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated a record $350 million to National University.
La Jolla philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated a county record $350 million to National University, which planned to rename the school after him.
(File)

The billionaire La Jolla philanthropist was under investigation in a child porn case, according to news reports.

A plan to rename National University after La Jolla billionaire and mega-donor T. Denny Sanford has been put on hold following news reports that he was the subject of a South Dakota child pornography investigation.

Sanford, a prominent philanthropist globally and in San Diego, where he lives part time, had given $350 million last fall to La Jolla-based National University.

“In light of recent developments, for the foreseeable future, National University will continue under its existing name,” the National University System said in a statement. “The board of National University will continue to follow this matter closely.”

The university declined to answer further questions.

The donation from the La Jolla philanthropist is the largest in the history of San Diego County

A call to a cellphone number associated with Sanford was not answered and a voicemail requesting comment was not immediately returned. No one answered a reporter’s knock on the door of his beachfront home in La Jolla.

Sanford, 84, is represented by former South Dakota attorney general and former U.S. attorney Marty Jackley, whose practice specializes in business, engineering, construction, agricultural and governmental law.

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

A spokesman for the South Dakota attorney general’s office said it is the agency’s policy not to comment on whether an investigation has been initiated or discuss the status of investigations that may be taking place.

The FBI in San Diego declined to say if it is involved, per policy.

Several San Diego institutions already bear Sanford’s name, particularly at UC San Diego.

Inspired by a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, Sanford last year gave UCSD $100 million to establish the T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion.

The Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UCSD came after a $100 million donation, and in 2008 he donated $30 million to create the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine facility.

His name also was added to what is now called the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, which studies disease and drug development, following multimillion-dollar gifts.

Neither UC San Diego nor the Medical Discovery Institute responded to a request to address the reports or whether funding has been affected.

The existence of an investigation was first reported by the nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica on Aug. 28. The news outlet cited four unidentified sources with knowledge of the matter. An investigation was confirmed by the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, which cited “multiple sources” who also were not named.

The investigation began with a search warrant out of the South Dakota attorney general’s Division of Criminal Investigation, and it was later sent to the U.S. Department of Justice for further investigation, according to the reports. No details from a search warrant have been reported.

The Argus Leader reported that an electronic device owned by Sanford was at the center of the probe and that the federal investigation has expanded to other places where Sanford has homes, including California and Arizona.

In October, Sanford, who made his fortune in banking and finance, broke a San Diego County giving record with a $350 million donation to National University, which caters to older learners online. The funds were in support of the school’s efforts to double enrollment over the next few years by reducing annual tuition by thousands of dollars.

His relationship with the school runs deep. There’s the Sanford Harmony program, which teaches elementary-age children to treat one another with civility and compassion. Sanford Inspire caters to schoolteachers, and the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy teaches fundraising skills.

The broader name change to Sanford National University was supposed to happen in July. Now university officials are waiting to see what happens. The name-change announcement published on the university’s website in October has been removed.

In South Dakota, where Sanford also has donated considerable funds, Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and chief executive of Sanford Health, a health care system named after him, said in a letter to employees that he was “deeply concerned about these reports.” Krabbenhoft said the matter does not involve the health system and that it had not been contacted by law enforcement.

Kristina Davis writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.