Binance agrees to pay over $4B for US law violations
Binance Holdings Limited, the entity that operates the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, Binance.com, pleaded guilty on November 21, 2023 and has agreed to pay over $4 billion to resolve the Justice Department’s investigation into violations related to the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), failure to register as a money transmitting business, and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).
Binance’s founder and chief executive officer (CEO), Changpeng Zhao, a Canadian national, also pleaded guilty to failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering (AML) program, in violation of the BSA and has resigned as CEO of Binance.
Binance’s guilty plea is part of coordinated resolutions with the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
According to court documents, Binance admitted to prioritizing growth and profits over compliance with U.S. law. Binance launched in 2017 and focused on attracting high-volume customers, including U.S.-based customers. Binance quickly became the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world, with the greatest share of its customers coming from the United States.
As a result of serving U.S. customers, Binance was required to register with FinCEN as a money services business and to implement an effective AML program that was reasonably designed to prevent Binance from being used to facilitate money laundering. Binance chose not to comply with U.S. law and failed to implement controls and procedures to prevent money laundering.
Binance also did not implement controls that would have prevented U.S. customers from conducting transactions with customers in sanctioned jurisdictions, despite knowing that the system it used to match customers for transactions would necessarily cause transactions in violation of IEEPA.
Instead of complying with U.S. law, in 2019, Binance announced that it would block U.S. customers and launched a separate U.S. exchange, Binance.US. Despite this announcement, Binance took steps to maintain a substantial number of U.S. customers.
In particular, Binance focused on retaining valuable “VIP” customers, which were responsible for a large portion of Binance’s trading volume and revenue. These VIP customers were critical to Binance’s business because they helped provide the necessary liquidity to facilitate trades of digital assets. For example, Binance executives, including Zhao, made a plan to contact VIP customers and help the VIP register a new account for an offshore entity and transfer holdings to that account. Binance employees also called U.S. VIPs to encourage them to provide information that suggested the customer was not located in the United States.
Binance also did not implement the core components of an effective AML program: Binance did not implement comprehensive know-your-customer (KYC) protocols or systematically monitor transactions, and Binance never filed a suspicious activity report (SAR) with FinCEN. For years, Binance allowed users to open accounts and trade without submitting any identifying information beyond an email address.
Binance began requiring all users to provide KYC information in August 2021 but allowed users who had not provided KYC to continue trading on the exchange until May 2022. Between August 2017 and October 2022, U.S. users, including VIPs, conducted trillions of dollars in transactions on the platform, generating over $1.6 billion in profit for Binance.
As Binance’s internal communications showed, Binance’s compliance employees recognized that Binance did not have protocols to flag or report transactions for money laundering risks, which employees recognized would attract criminals to the exchange. As one compliance employee wrote, “we need a banner ‘is washing drug money too hard these days – come to binance we got cake for you.’”
As part of the plea agreement, Binance has agreed to forfeit $2,510,650,588 and to pay a criminal fine of $1,805,475,575 for a total financial penalty of $4,316,126,163. Binance has also agreed to retain an independent compliance monitor for three years and remediate and enhance their anti-money laundering and sanctions compliance programs. Binance separately has also reached agreements with the CFTC, FinCEN, and OFAC, and the Department will credit approximately $1.8 billion toward those resolutions.
The Department reached its resolution with Binance based on a number of factors, including the nature, seriousness, and pervasiveness of the offense, as a result of which Binance processed billions of dollars of cryptocurrency transactions for U.S. persons and caused U.S. customers to engage in transactions in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Binance did not make a timely and voluntary disclosure of wrongdoing, but it received partial credit for its cooperation with the Department’s investigation, and it has taken steps to remediate its compliance program. Binance did not receive full credit for its cooperation because it delayed producing relevant evidence, including recorded meetings in which Binance executives discussed U.S. legal requirements.
Accordingly, the total criminal penalty reflects a 20% reduction off the bottom of the applicable U.S. sentencing guidelines fine range.