Binance, the world's largest crypto exchange, was criminally charged with breaking sanctions and money-transmitting laws and agreed to pay $4.3 billion to settle the allegations in "one of the largest penalties" the U.S. has ever obtained from a corporate defendant.
Binance was accused of failing to maintain a proper anti-money laundering program, operating an unlicensed money-transmitting business and violating sanctions law, according to a court filing unsealed on Tuesday.
Zhao pleaded guilty to violating the Bank Secrecy Act and causing a financial institution to violate the BSA, according to another filing. His fine will be credited against the amount he owes the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice said.
"Binance employees knew and discussed that the company was serving thousands of users in sanctioned countries, and they knew that facilitating transactions between U.S. users and users in sanctioned countries would be in violation of U.S. law. But they did it anyway," Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
The $4.3 billion Binance is paying is among the largest penalties ever obtained from a corporate defendant, Garland said. The exchange's overall fine remains $4.3 billion, with some amount being credited to each agency.
Under the terms of its plea, Binance will have to appoint an independent compliance monitor for three years and report its compliance efforts to the U.S. government, alongside the fines. Zhao is prohibited from "any present or future involvement in operating or managing" Binance, though that ban ends three years after the monitor is appointed.
A resolution of the Binance case represents another major U.S. government victory against a big crypto player, coming just weeks after FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges tied to his crypto exchange.
Zhao "prioritized Binance's growth, market share and profits over compliance with" U.S. banking regulations, according to unsealed filings. "Better to ask for forgiveness than permission," he told his employees, the document said. That mindset pervaded Binance's operations in what Zhao termed the U.S. "Grey zone." He saw to it that Binance did not collect "know-your-customer" information on its users because he believed it would inhibit its growth and appeal.
Such oversights put Binance at risk of breaking multiple U.S. laws, including sanctions rules. According to the court filings, Zhao's staff warned him that the exchange was servicing users from sanctioned countries.
In a blog post, Binance acknowledged the "resolutions" it reached with the various agencies named, saying the exchange has worked to restructure over the past few years and citing its "new leadership ... with deep compliance experience."
"We are confident that Binance will emerge as a stronger company as we lay the foundation for the next 50 years," the blog post said.
Teng, the new head of the exchange, said Binance still has around 150 million users and thousands of employees.
"My focus will be on: 1) reassuring users that they can remain confident in the financial strength, security and safety of the company 2) collaborating with regulators to uphold high standards globally that foster innovation while providing important consumer protections 3) working with partners to drive growth and adoption of Web3," he said in a tweet.
Zhao said he may engage in passive investing or being a minority shareholder in different projects, as well as look at decentralized finance (DeFi) more.
The DOJ announced early Tuesday it would hold a press conference to announce what it described as "significant cryptocurrency enforcement actions," with Garland, Yellen, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and CFTC Chairman Rostin Behnam. During the press conference, Monaco said Tuesday's action "sent an unmistakable message to crypto and DeFi companies."
Each of the officials mentioned Binance's alleged violations, which include poor anti-money laundering procedures.
"Over five years while building a business with U.S. customers, Binance enabled nearly $1 billion in illegal payments involving sanctioned countries and individuals," Monaco said.
Bloomberg, which first reported that Tuesday's press conference would be about Binance, reported on Monday that Binance could settle the DOJ's charges with a $4 billion fine and a deferred prosecution agreement. Reuters later confirmed the announcement would detail the DOJ's deal with Binance. The Wall Street Journal first reported Zhao would step down.
Binance's BNB token recently dropped 4.6%.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 16:45 UTC): Adds additional detail, including confirmation about what Tuesday's press conference will discuss.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 17:24 UTC): Adds Wall Street Journal report on Zhao planning to step down and Binance paying a $4.3 billion fine.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 18:37 UTC): Adds court document with Binance charges.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 18:50 UTC): Adds additional details.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 21:10 UTC): Adds details from press conference, blog post.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 21:49 UTC): Adds additional details.
UPDATE (Nov. 21, 2023, 22:15 UTC): Adds line on the fine.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, institutional digital assets exchange. Bullish group is majority owned by Block.one; both groups have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary, and an editorial committee, chaired by a former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, is being formed to support journalistic integrity.