Binance will pay $4.3 billion in penalties to resolve an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) criminal investigation in an agreement that was announced Tuesday afternoon by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. The DOJ charged the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange with operating as an unlicensed money transmitting business (MTB) and violating sanctions law.
“By failing to comply with U.S. law, Binance made it easy for criminals to move their stolen funds and illicit proceeds on its exchanges,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a press conference announcing the Binance guilty plea. He added: Binance also did more than just comply. It pretended to comply.”
Garland said that the $4.3 billion is among the largest penalties that the DOJ has ever secured from a corporate defendant in a criminal investigation. The penalty is also the largest finance enforcement action in the history of the U.S. Treasury Department, said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, whose agency was involved in the settlement along with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
The agreement with Binance follows less than three weeks after the DOJ secured a guilty verdict against Sam Bankman-Fried, the former CEO of collapsed crypto exchange FTX, on fraud and conspiracy charges. Bankman-Fried faces potentially decades in prison.
“In the past month, the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted the CEOs of two of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges in two separate criminal cases,” Garland said. “The message here should be clear. Using new technology to break the law does not make you a disrupter. It makes you a criminal.”
In a separate action, Binance CEO and founder Changpeng “CZ” Zhao pleaded guilty in a Seattle Federal court on Tuesday to violating the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and leading his company to breach the BSA. Zhao agreed to pay $50 million penalties, although the amount may lower after he is credited for totals he has already agreed to pay regulators related to their allegations, according to multiple reports.
In the complaint, the DOJ said that Zhao had operated an “unlicensed MTB in part to prevent U.S. regulators from discovering that” he had “facilitated billions of dollars of cryptocurrency transactions on behalf of its customers, including U.S. customers, without implementing appropriate ‘know your customer’ (KYC) procedures, conducting adequate transaction monitoring, or establishing sufficient controls that would have prevented its U.S. customers from engaging in transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions and to prevent (him) from processing other transactions involving illicit proceeds.
The complaint added: “As a result, Defendant willfully caused millions of dollars of cryptocurrency transactions between U.S. persons and persons in jurisdictions that are subject to comprehensive U.S. sanctions in violation of IEEPA (International Emergency Economic Powers Act).”
Under the plea agreement, Zhao cannot participate in operating Binance in the future, although the ban could end three years after the appointment of a compliance monitor. Binance must report its compliance efforts to the U.S. government for this length of time.
In a statement on its blog, Binance acknowledged the “company’s responsibility for historical, criminal compliance violations,” but said it had already been hiring new personnel and working to improve its processes. “Binance grew at an extremely fast pace globally, in a new and evolving industry that was in the early stages of regulation, and Binance made misguided decisions along the way,” Binance said. “Today, Binance takes responsibility for this past chapter.”
Binance said in the statement that Richard Teng, who was the company’s global head of regional markets, would succeed Zhao. Teng is a former chief regulatory authority officer of the Singapore Exchange (SGX).
The settlement will allow Binance to continue operations and avoid a massive collapse that could ripple through the crypto industry – a deep concern among U.S. officials. A DOJ settlement proposal first reported by Bloomberg left open the possibility that Zhao could face criminal charges.
Bitcoin and Ether, the two largest cryptocurrencies by market cap, each dipped slightly in the hour after the DOJ announcement, although bitcoin was holding its most recent perch above $37,000. Binance’s BNB token, which rose more than 5% at one point Monday, fell 3.7%. Other major altcoins were in the red.
Binance has been facing legal and regulatory scrutiny on multiple fronts. In June, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sued Binance, Zhao and Binance.US for allegedly listing unregistered securities as cryptocurrencies for trading and investment by U.S. investors. And in March, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) sued Binance and Zhao, accusing them of knowingly offering unregistered crypto derivatives products in violation of federal law.
In a statement, Yellen said that Binance falsely claimed to have exited the U.S. market years ago and that it had critical gaps in its anti-money laundering program and practices, from a lack of risk-based procedures for various offerings to instructing staff to withhold information from law enforcement.
“It deliberately undermined its own sanctions monitoring controls, and it failed to report suspicious transactions,” Yellen said. “This meant Binance was allowing illicit actors to transact freely, supporting activities from child sexual abuse to illegal narcotics to terrorism across more than 100,000 transactions. That includes transactions associated with terrorist groups like Hamas, Al Qaeda and ISIS.
UPDATE (November 21, 2023, 13:18 ET): Changes headline and adds information about Zhao’s resignation.
UPDATE (November 21, 2023, 16:32 ET): Changes headline and information to reflect DOJ press conference, including Garland comments, and to include Binance statement.
UPDATE (November 21, 2023, 17:23 ET): Adds Yellen comment.