WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government dealt a massive blow to Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, which agreed to pay a roughly $4 billion settlement Tuesday as its founder and CEO Changpeng Zhao pleaded guilty to a felony related to his failure to prevent money laundering on the platform.
Zhao stepped down as the company’s chief executive and Binance admitted to violations of the Bank Secrecy Act and apparent violations of sanctions programs, including its failure to implement reporting programs for suspicious transactions.
“Using new technology to break the law does not make you a disruptor, it makes you a criminal,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who called the settlement one of the largest corporate penalties in the nation’s history.
As part of the settlement agreement, the U.S. Treasury said Binance will be subject to five years of monitoring and “significant compliance undertakings, including to ensure Binance’s complete exit from the United States.” Binance is a Cayman Islands limited liability company.
The cryptocurrency industry has been marred by scandals and market meltdowns.
Zhao was perhaps best known as the chief rival to Sam Bankman-Fried, the 31-year-old founder of the FTX, which was the second-largest crypto exchange before it collapsed last November. Bankman-Fried was convicted earlier this month of fraud for stealing at least $10 billion from customers and investors.
Zhao, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Seattle on Tuesday to one count of failure to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering program.
Magistrate Judge Brian A. Tsuchida questioned Zhao to make sure he understood the plea agreement, saying at one point: “You knew you didn’t have controls in place.”
“Yes, your honor,” he replied.
Binance wrote in a statement that it made “misguided decisions” as it quickly grew to become the world’s biggest crypto exchange, and said the settlement acknowledges its “responsibility for historical, criminal compliance violations.”
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Binance processed transitions by illicit actors, “supporting activities from child sexual abuse, to illegal narcotics, to terrorism, across more than 100,000 transactions.”
Binance did not file a single suspicious activity report on those transactions, Yellen said, and the company allowed over 1.5 million virtual currency trades that violated U.S. sanctions — including ones involving Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades, al-Qaeda and other criminals.
The judge set Zhao’s sentencing for Feb. 23, however it’s likely to be delayed. He faces a possible guideline sentence range of up to 18 months.
One of his attorneys, Mark Bartlett, noted that Zhao had been aware of the investigation since December 2020, and surrendered willingly even though the United Arab Emirates — where Zhao lives — has no extradition treaty with the U.S.
“He decided to come here and face the consequences,” Bartlett said. “He’s sitting here. He pled guilty.”
Zhao, who is married and has young children in the UAE, promised he would return to the U.S. for sentencing if allowed to stay there in the meantime.
“I want to take responsibility and close this chapter in my life,” Zhao said. “I want to come back. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”
Zhao previously faced allegations of diverting customer funds, concealing the fact that the company was commingling billions of dollars in investor assets and sending them to a third party that Zhao also owned.
Over the summer, Binance was accused of operating as an unregistered securities exchange and violating a slew of U.S. securities laws in a lawsuit from regulators. That case was similar to practices uncovered after the collapse of FTX.
Zhao and Bankman-Fried were originally friendly competitors in the industry, with Binance investing in FTX when Bankman-Fried launched the exchange in 2019. However, the relationship between the two deteriorated, culminating in Zhao announcing he was selling all of his cryptocurrency investments in FTX in early November 2022. FTX filed for bankruptcy a week later.
At this trial and in later public statements, Bankman-Fried tried cast blame on Binance and Zhao for allegedly orchestrating a run on the bank at FTX.
A jury found Bankman-Fried guilty of wire fraud and several other charges. He is expected to be sentenced in March, where he could face decades in prison.
Johnson contributed from Seattle. Associated Press writer Ken Sweet in New York contributed to this story.