Judge approves Binance $4.3 billion guilty plea as US seeks to modify founder Zhao's bond

FILE PHOTO: Illustration shows Binance logo
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By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday accepted Binance's guilty plea and more than $4.3 billion penalty for violating federal anti-money laundering and sanctions laws through lapses in internal controls at the world's largest cryptocurrency exchange.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle approved the plea, which includes a $1.81 billion criminal fine and $2.51 billion of forfeiture, about an hour after the government proposed changes to Binance founder Changpeng Zhao's bond, drawing an objection from Zhao's lawyers.

Binance's plea announced in November resolved a years-long probe that found the exchange had failed to report more than 100,000 suspicious transactions involving designated terrorist groups including Hamas, al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Prosecutors said Binance's platform also supported the sale of child sexual abuse materials and was among the largest recipients of ransomware proceeds.

In a statement on Friday, Binance said it accepted responsibility, has upgraded its anti-money laundering and "know-your-customer" protocols, and has made "significant progress" toward changes required under its plea agreement.

Zhao has been free in the United States on a $175 million bond after also pleading guilty in November to money laundering violations.

His plea included a $50 million fine and required that he step down as Binance chief executive.

In a court filing, prosecutors said the proposed bond changes were meant to reflect Jones' orders that Zhao stay in the continental United States and under court officer supervision until his April 30 sentencing.

The conditions include that Zhao provide three days notice of any travel plans, surrender his passports and maintain his current residence unless he gets approval for a change.

Pretrial services officers are recommending that Zhao also be subjected to location monitoring.

Prosecutors said they have discussed the changes with Zhao's lawyers several times, but that they "object to this motion as written."

Zhao's lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The cases are U.S. v Binance Holdings Ltd, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington, No. 23-cr-00178, and U.S. v. Zhao in the same court, No. 23-cr-00179.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)