Binance crypto chief Changpeng Zhao pleads guilty to federal charges

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Changpeng Zhao, founder of the world’s largest crypto exchange, pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating the Bank Secrecy Act and has agreed to step down as chief executive of Binance, which will pay a $4.3 billion fine, according to court documents.

The plea agreement marks the second time this month that a giant of the global cryptocurrency market has been felled by federal charges. Zhao faces a prison sentence of around 18 months, according to sentencing guidelines.

As part of the plea agreement, Zhao is barred from working with the exchange for three years, according to a court filing. He appeared in federal court in Seattle on Tuesday and will be fined $50 million. The company also entered a guilty plea to violating the Bank Secrecy Act, as well as failing to register as a money transfer business and violating sanctions law.

The deal ends the Justice Department’s three-year investigation of Binance and comes months after the firm was accused by regulators of operating as an unregistered securities exchange.

Zhao’s departure marks the end of an era for one of the crypto industry’s longest-standing titans, who sparred with regulators for years. Zhao was also an original investor in FTX, the beleaguered crypto exchange founded by Sam Bankman-Fried, who was convicted at trial of seven counts of fraud and money laundering earlier this month.

“Today, I stepped down as CEO of Binance,” Zhao said in a lengthy post on X, formerly Twitter, that did not mention his guilty plea but said Richard Teng, the firm’s former Global Head of Regional Markets, had been named chief executive. “I made mistakes, and I must take responsibility. This is best for our community, for Binance, and for myself.”

Court papers filed by the government say Binance chose not to implement anti-money laundering measures, essentially allowing the firm to become a clearinghouse for all manner of illicit financial transactions. Between 2018 and 2022, that led to nearly $900 million in financial transactions that violated sanctions against Iran, the court papers charge.

In its announcement, the Treasury Department accused Binance of allowing Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda and ISIS “to transact freely, supporting activities from child sexual abuse to illegal narcotics to terrorism.” The agency will monitor Binance’s financial records for five years under the threat of a $150 million penalty. Tuesday’s settlement will also ensure Binance’s “complete exit from the United States,” according to a statement.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the company “allowed money to flow to terrorists, cybercriminals, and child abusers through its platform.”

In June, the Securities and Exchange Commission came after Binance and Coinbase, another crypto exchange, asking Binance to freeze all assets on its U.S. platform and accusing Coinbase of acting as a securities exchange, broker and clearing agency.

“Binance became the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange in part because of the crimes it committed – now it is paying one of the largest corporate penalties in U.S. history,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. He noted that in the past month, the Justice Department has won a guilty plea or a conviction of the leaders of two of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges — meaning Zhao and Bankman-Fried.

Authorities said Binance earned a 20 percent reduction in its sentencing fine for cooperating with investigators, but noted that it did not receive full credit for cooperation because the company delayed producing key evidence, including recordings of meetings in which executives talked about U.S. legal requirements.

The plea deal is the latest victory in the Securities and Exchange Commissions’s effort to rid bad crypto actors from the United States, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“Especially after what they did in the Southern District of New York with the other big crypto story this year,” he said, referring to the conviction of Bankman-Fried.

This is developing story. It will be updated.



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