Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao has reached a plea agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in which he will plead guilty to criminal charges and step down as CEO. The settlement, totaling $4.3 billion, concludes a multi-year investigation into the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange.
The charges against Zhao and others include violations of the Bank Secrecy Act for failing to implement an effective anti-money laundering program and willfully violating U.S. economic sanctions. The DOJ is recommending a $50 million fine for Zhao personally. Binance itself faces three criminal charges, including conducting an unlicensed money transmitting business, violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and a conspiracy charge.
As part of the settlement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2.5 billion to the government and pay a $1.8 billion fine. The company has been under regulatory scrutiny for its operations, with concerns raised about its approach to entering markets without proper authorization and allegations of involvement in illicit activities such as money laundering and securities fraud.
Earlier this year, both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed civil suits against Binance. The SEC accused the exchange of running an illegal securities exchange and mishandling customer funds, while the CFTC alleged that Binance operated an "illegal" exchange and violated laws related to money laundering and terrorism financing.
The SEC's lawsuit against Binance included 13 charges, accusing the company of commingling customer funds with its own funds, similar to allegations made against the now-bankrupt exchange FTX. SEC Chair Gary Gensler stated that Zhao and Binance engaged in deception, conflicts of interest, lack of disclosure, and evasion of the law.
Binance, which was founded in 2017 by a Chinese-born entrepreneur, quickly became a major player in the cryptocurrency industry. It remains the world's largest crypto exchange, processing billions of dollars in trading volume annually. The company pursued rapid global expansion without always obtaining proper authorization. Binance's decentralized operating model has also drawn attention, as it lacks a single global headquarters.
The regulatory crackdown on Binance has broader implications for the crypto industry, as the SEC argues that certain tokens offered by Binance and other exchanges should be classified as securities and registered with the agency. The outcome of these cases could have significant consequences for the future regulation of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.