SEATTLE (AP) — The founder of Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a felony charge that he failed to take steps to prevent money laundering as the company agreed to pay more than $4 billion following an investigation by the U.S. government.
CEO Changpeng Zhao pleaded guilty to one count of failure to maintain an effective anti-money-laundering program in federal court in Seattle. Binance is a Cayman Islands limited liability company.
The plea comes as the company agreed to pay over $4 billion as part of an agreement with the U.S. government, a person familiar with the agreement told The Associated Press. The person confirmed the amount on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the agreement ahead of an expected announcement.
Over the summer, the company was accused of operating as an unregistered securities exchange and violating a slew of U.S. securities laws in a lawsuit from regulators. That case was similar to practices uncovered after the collapse of FTX, the second largest cryptocurrency exchange, last year.
Magistrate Judge Brian A. Tsuchida set Zhao’s sentencing for Feb. 23, however that’s likely to be delayed. He faces a possible guideline sentence range of up to 18 months.
The judge questioned Zhao to make sure he understood the plea agreement, saying at one point: “You knew you didn’t have controls in place.”
“Yes, your honor,” he replied.
One of his attorneys, Mark Bartlett, noted that Zhao had been aware of the investigation since December 2020, and surrendered willingly even though the United Arab Emirates — where Zhao lives — has no extradition treaty with the U.S.
“He decided to come here and face the consequences,” Bartlett said. “He’s sitting here. He pled guilty.”
Zhao, who is married and has young children in the UAE, promised that he would return to the U.S. for sentencing if allowed to stay there in the meantime.
“I want to take responsibility and close this chapter in my life,” Zhao said. “I want to come back. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.”
Zhao had previously faced allegations of diverting customer funds, concealing the fact that the company was commingling billions of dollars in investor assets and sending them to a third party that Zhao also owned.
The cryptocurrency industry has been marred by scandals and market meltdowns. Sam Bankman-Fried, the 31-year-old founder of FTX, was convicted earlier this month of fraud for stealing at least $10 billion from customers and investors.
Of his many depictions in the cryptocurrency industry, Zhao was best known as the chief rival to Bankman-Fried.
Zhao and Bankman-Fried were originally friendly competitors in the industry, with Binance investing in FTX when Bankman-Fried launched the exchange in 2019. However, the relationship between the two deteriorated, culminating in Zhao announcing he was selling all of his cryptocurrency investments in FTX in early November 2022. FTX filed for bankruptcy a week later.
At this trial and in later public statements, Bankman-Fried tried cast blame on Binance and Zhao for allegedly orchestrating a run on the bank at FTX.
A jury found Bankman-Fried guilty of wire fraud and several other charge in October. He is expected to be sentenced in March, where he could face decades in prison.
Associated Press writers Fatima Hussein in Washington, D.C. and Ken Sweet in New York contributed to this story. Whitehurst and Tucker reported from Washington, D.C.
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