Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, the owner and CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange Binance, has agreed to step down and plead guilty to breaking anti-money-laundering laws, according to papers filed in a Seattle court on Tuesday. This comes as part of the major settlement the Department of Justice announced this afternoon, which will require Binance to fork over $4.3 billion in fines.
Zhao also agreed to pay $50 million, and sentencing will occur at a later date. “Today, I stepped down as CEO of Binance,” Zhao writes on X (formerly Twitter). “Admittedly, it was not easy to let go emotionally. But I know it is the right thing to do. I made mistakes, and I must take responsibility. This is best for our community, for Binance, and for myself.”
Richard Teng, Binance’s head of regional markets, will take Zhao’s place as CEO. Under the terms of the settlement, Binance will need to appoint an independent compliance monitor. Zhao won’t be allowed to have any involvement with Binance until three years after the monitor is appointed. Even though Zhao can no longer assume an executive role at Binance, The Wall Street Journal reports the terms of the agreement will let Zhao keep his majority ownership of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange.
“Binance facilitated billions of dollars of unregulated cryptocurrency transactions,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a press conference on Tuesday. “Its platform accommodates criminals across the world who use Binance to move their stolen funds and other criminal proceeds.” Garland adds that Binance enabled “nearly” $900 million in transactions between the US and Iran, a sanctioned country, while its compliance team was aware that its anti-money-laundering protections were “inadequate.”
The Securities and Exchange Commission first sued Binance and Zhao in June, accusing the crypto exchange of operating illegally in the US while defrauding investors. The agency also attempted to freeze Binance’s assets over claims the exchange engaged in “violative conduct” in “disregard of the laws of the United States.” Binance ultimately avoided the freeze by implementing a set of restrictions that prevented Binance and Zhao from having access to customer funds, among other things.
“In just 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 says. “The message here should be clear using new technology to break the law does not make you a disrupter — it makes you a criminal.”
Update November 21st, 3:32PM ET: Added confirmation Zhao is stepping down.
Update November 21st, 3:56PM ET: Added statements from Zhao and Attorney General Garland.