On Tuesday, the price of top cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, tumbled for a couple of hours and then recovered. The hardest hit was the Binance token BNB, which experienced a drop of 6% in 24 hours.
However, this was not part of the normal volatile fluctuations of blockchain coins. It was a negative reaction to the news that Changpeng “CZ” Zhao’s days as the CEO of Binance had come to an end.
It was the news that CZ, the CEO of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, was stepping down as part of a major $4 billion settlement between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the exchange he founded.
In what is the latest chapter of a continued regulatory U.S. crackdown on the crypto industry, Zhao will plead guilty to anti-money laundering charges brought by the DOJ. The Wall Street Journal reports that CZ is scheduled to enter the plea in federal court in Seattle on Tuesday afternoon.
DOJ’s Years-Long Investigation Into Binance Coming to an End
Binance has been facing serious legal problems for several years. On March 2023, the new Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) filed legal action against Binance (PDF). The complaint charged Binance Holdings Limited, Binance Holdings (IE) Limited, and Binance (Services) Holdings Limited, who operate the Binance centralized digital asset trading platform, for alleged willful evasion of U.S. law. It also charged Changpeng Zhao, describing him as “at the helm” of operations.
“For years, Binance knew they were violating CFTC rules, working actively to both keep the money flowing and avoid compliance. This should be a warning to anyone in the digital asset world that the CFTC will not tolerate willful avoidance of U.S. law,” CFTC Chairman Rostin Behnam said.
Later this year, on June 5, the SEC also took aim at Binance. SEC charged the crypto operator and its founder, CZ, with operating an unregistered exchange and misleading investors by using a Switzerland-based fund, Sigma Chain, which was also owned by CZ, to inflate the trading volume on Binance’s U.S. platform.
But the longest-standing legal battle against Binance is that of the DOJ. In late 2020, Bloomberg reported that federal prosecutors demanded Binance to hand over files and messages relating to its U.S. customers. Other reports assure that DOJ investigations into Binance may predate 2018.
For the past several years, the DOJ has been investigating the leading crypto exchange, for suspected money laundering, unlicensed money transmission, and criminal sanctions violations. Now, that investigation seems to come to an end.
The conclusion seems to be a $4 billion settlement between Binance and the DOJ. According to Wired, the DOJ is willing to suspend criminal charges against Binance “provided it steps into line—and pays $4 billion.”
The Binance-DOJ Deal Details
Binance is reported to have to pay $1.81 billion in the next 15 months and a further $2.51 billion forfeiture under the DOJ deal. CZ himself will pay $50 million personally. CZ is forced to step down as CEO as the DOJ plea agreement bars him from all involvement with Binance. Binance’s former chief compliance officer, Samuel Lim, is also expected to be charged as part of the settlement.
Experts agree that the $4 billion payment will not impact Binance operations as the company’s daily operations widely exceed that amount.
Reuters reports that the details of the deal in court filings reveal it is an agreement between Binance and other U.S. agencies, including the DOJ, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and the Treasury Department. The filing said the agreement will resolve criminal charges for conducting an unlicensed money transmitter business, conspiracy, and breaching sanctions regulations.
Future Legal Actions Against Binance and Market Consequences
The action against Binance brought forward by the SEC is not resolved or included in the DOJ settlement. “Through thirteen charges, we allege that Zhao and Binance entities engaged in an extensive web of deception, conflicts of interest, lack of disclosure, and calculated evasion of the law,” the SEC chair Gary Gensler said in June when SEC actions were filed.
Other than the pending SEC charges, Binance still needs to navigate the final negotiations of the DOJ deal. It is officially unknown if Binance will face criminal charges or if the DOJ will choose to close its investigation when Binance meets its criteria and all fines are paid.
The future of CZ is also unknown. The former CEO might also face criminal charges, or the DOJ could settle with him. When this report was written, Binance and CZ had not issued any press statements and were declining to comment on press requests.
The crypto industry is at a historical point regulation point. The FTX collapse, the trial against Sam Bankman-Fried, and now the DOJ-Binance deal are all clear signs that the industry is facing intense scrutiny.
Experts warn that further complications, legal actions, or even a collapse of Binance, with hundreds of millions of active users moving funds every day, could ripple across not only the crypto industry but through the banking and financial sector as well, as to date, both are heavily connected.