Binance Founder Changpeng Zhao Should Spend 3 Years in Prison, DOJ Says

The DOJ wants Zhao to serve 36 months after his guilty plea last year.

AccessTimeIconApr 24, 2024 at 5:43 a.m. UTC
Updated Apr 24, 2024 at 6:59 p.m. UTC

Binance's founder and former chief executive, Changpeng "CZ" Zhao, should spend three years in prison for his role in enabling the crypto exchange to violate federal sanctions and money laundering laws, the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday night. The former CEO's attorneys argued he should serve no jail time, citing the fine he paid and his "extraordinary acceptance of responsibility."

Attorneys with the DOJ filed a sentencing memo arguing he should spend 36 months in prison and pay a $50 million fine after he pleaded guilty to violating the Bank Secrecy Act last November. Hours later, Zhao's defense team filed its own sentencing memo, saying "no defendant in a remotely similar BSA case has ever been sentenced to incarceration." Instead, they suggested he be sentenced to probation, which could include home confinement at his home in Abu Dhabi.

"The sentence in this case will not just send a message to Zhao but also to the world. Zhao reaped vast rewards for his violation of U.S. law, and the price of that violation must be significant to effectively punish Zhao for his criminal acts and to deter others who are tempted to build fortunes and business empires by breaking U.S. law," the filing said.

Zhao originally faced up to 18 months in prison under the terms of his plea agreement. The DOJ argued in Tuesday's filing that "the scope and ramifications of Zhao's misconduct were massive," and so "an upward variance is appropriate here."

"In part because Zhao failed to implement an effective AML program at Binance, illicit actors used Binance’s exchange in various ways, including operating mixing services that hid the source and ownership of cryptocurrency; transacting in illicit proceeds from ransomware attacks; and moving proceeds of darknet market transactions, exchange hacks, and various internet-related scams," the filing said, pointing to fund movements from darknet markets and crypto mixers.

Much of the filing echoes arguments made by the DOJ when it first announced charges against Binance and Zhao last year, pointing to how the exchange operated within the U.S.

The filing also walks through the DOJ's sentencing guidelines calculations, noting that the guidelines recommend 12 to 18 months, but saying Zhao knew Binance was violating the law and encouraged it.

The filing also took aim at how the Sentencing Guidelines address Bank Secrecy Act violations, saying they "are not designed to adequately punish either misconduct on this scale or misconduct that harms U.S. national security."

The $50 million fine was already agreed to by both the prosecution and Zhao's defense team. Zhao also waived the right to appeal any sentence up to 18 months.

Defense pushes back

Zhao did not know and was never "explicitly informed" of specific transactions on Binance with criminal funds, his defense filing said.

"Although Probation references a conversation in which Binance’s chief compliance officer warned Mr. Zhao that there were users from sanctioned countries on ... the reality is that Binance, as a non-U.S. company, was not prohibited from having users from U.S.-sanctioned countries on its platform," the filing said. By contrast, the sanctions charge to which the Company pleaded is a novel and narrow one (applied for the first time against Binance) that an algorithmic matching engine violates U.S. sanctions law by randomly pairing users in sanctioned countries with users in the United States."

Those transactions only made up a microscopically tiny portion of Binance's trading volume, the filing said, making it "inconceivable that Mr. Zhao acted knowingly and deliberately to bring them about."

Zhao also does not pose any risk of recidivism, the filing argued, saying that he should be sentenced to probation instead of prison.

Parts of the memo are redacted, though the sections immediately following the redacted portions reference Zhao's background and letters of support.

Zhao's supporters include Yi He, the mother of three of his children, his former wife Yang Weiqing, his two adult children with Yang, former U.S. Senator and current Binance lobbyist Max Baucus and a few dozen other individuals.

He was originally set to be sentenced in late February, but the hearing was postponed by mutual agreement to April 30. He hasn't been able to return to Dubai, where his partner and some of his children live, since he first appeared in federal court in Seattle, Washington last year.

Binance, the world's largest crypto exchange, pleaded guilty to charges of its own at the same time as Zhao, agreeing to a massive $4.3 billion fine and that it would report to a court-appointed monitor. The monitor has yet to be appointed.

UPDATE (April 24, 2024, 06:05 UTC): Adds additional detail.

UPDATE (April 24, 2024, 07:30 UTC): Adds defense filing information.

Edited by Nikhilesh De.


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Nikhilesh De

Nikhilesh De is CoinDesk's managing editor for global policy and regulation. He owns marginal amounts of bitcoin and ether.