Binance founder Changpeng Zhao steps down as CEO, will plead guilty to federal charges

The crypto exchange will continue to operate following a $4.3 billion settlement with the Justice Department.

Benoit Tessier / reuters

Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao is set to plead guilty to federal money laundering charges and step down from his position at the company he founded. Zhao and the cryptocurrency exchange have reached a plea deal with the government, which conducted a multi-year investigation into the company, CNBC reports. As part of the settlement, Binance will forfeit $2.5 billion and pay a $1.8 billion fine. Zhao is slated to personally pay $50 million.

Zhao will be prohibited from having any involvement with Binance for three years. As part of the plea deal, Zhao will plead guilty later on Tuesday to violating and causing a financial institution to violate the Bank Secrecy Act, according to Reuters.

Binance, Zhao and others were accused of failing to institute an effective anti-money laundering program. According to the Justice Department, they willfully violated economic sanctions “in a deliberate and calculated effort to profit from the US market without implementing controls required by US law." Court documents state that the lack of anti-money laundering measures led to Binance facilitating almost $900 million in financial transactions in violation of sanctions against Iran between 2018 and 2022.

In a statement, Zhao confirmed he is stepping down as CEO, with the company's former global head of regional markets Richard Teng taking over the top job. "Today, I stepped down as CEO of Binance," Zhao wrote on X. "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."

Zhao now plans to take a break before perhaps getting more involved in investing. However, "I can’t see myself being a CEO driving a startup again. I am content being an one-shot (lucky) entrepreneur."

The settlement resolves criminal charges related to breaching sanctions regulations, conspiracy and conducting an unlicensed money transmitter business. Meanwhile, former compliance chief Samuel Lim will reportedly face charges as part of the deal.

This is a major settlement between the company and agencies such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Treasury Department. The CFTC charged Binance, Zhao and Lim with violating its rules, as well as the Commodity Exchange Act, earlier this year.

“Binance turned a blind eye to its legal obligations in the pursuit of profit. Its willful failures allowed money to flow to terrorists, cybercriminals, and child abusers through its platform,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. “Today’s historic penalties and monitorship to ensure compliance with US law and regulations mark a milestone for the virtual currency industry. Any institution, wherever located, that wants to reap the benefits of the US financial system must also play by the rules that keep us all safe from terrorists, foreign adversaries, and crime, or face the consequences.”

Binance will remain in operation, albeit under stricter rules. It will need to ensure it abides by anti-money laundering regulations by beefing up its compliance program. The company will also have to appoint an independent compliance monitor.

In June, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Binance and Zhao, alleging that they helped US traders bypass restrictions and violated securities laws by, among other things, mishandling funds. The SEC also claimed that (in similar allegations to those laid against rival exchange FTX) Binance commingled billions of dollars of customer money with the company's own funds. The SEC charges were not resolved in this settlement.