Binance Founder Changpeng Zhao Agrees to Step Down, Plead Guilty - Kanebridge News
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Binance Founder Changpeng Zhao Agrees to Step Down, Plead Guilty

Zhao’s crypto exchange will also admit wrongdoing and agree to pay $4.3 billion in fines

Wed, Nov 22, 2023 8:52amGrey Clock 3 min

The chief executive of Binance, the largest global cryptocurrency exchange, plans to step down and plead guilty to violating criminal U.S. anti-money-laundering requirements, in a deal that may preserve the company’s ability to continue operating, according to people familiar with the matter.

Changpeng Zhao is scheduled to appear in Seattle federal court Tuesday afternoon and enter his plea, according to court records unsealed Tuesday. Prosecutors also unsealed a document charging Binance, which Zhao owns, with anti-money-laundering and sanctions crimes. Binance will also plead guilty and agree to pay fines totaling $4.3 billion, which includes amounts to settle civil allegations made by regulators, the people said.

Zhao has agreed to pay a criminal fine of $50 million, although that amount may be reduced based on separate civil penalties he has agreed to pay, court records show.

The deal would end long-running investigations of Binance. Zhao founded the firm in 2017 and turned it into the most important hub of the global crypto market. The criminal probe, in particular, has shadowed the company even as its market share initially grew after the collapse last year of FTX, one of its main offshore competitors.

Executives have recently fled Binance, and the exchange has laid off a chunk of its employees this year as the company struggled to come to terms with the U.S. probes.

The deal would allow Zhao to retain his majority ownership of Binance, although he won’t be able to have an executive role at the company. He is eligible to return to working at the company three years after a court-imposed compliance monitor is appointed, court records show. He would face sentencing at a later date.

The outcome resembles an earlier case that prosecutors brought against the executives of BitMEX, an exchange for trading crypto derivatives that was based in the Seychelles. Its former CEO, Arthur Hayes, pleaded guilty to violating anti-money-laundering law and was later sentenced to two years probation, avoiding a possible prison term of six to 12 months.

Striking a deal between the Justice Department and Binance had been elusive for months, the people said. Zhao recently hired a new lead attorney, William A. Burck of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, to represent him before the Justice Department. Gibson Dunn & Crutcher has represented Binance.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

The deal to be announced on Tuesday doesn’t include a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which sued Binance and Zhao in June and alleged it violated U.S. investor-protection laws, the people said. Major crypto exchanges such as Binance have decided to litigate with the SEC, believing they can show that cryptocurrencies don’t qualify as the kinds of investments overseen by the SEC.

The Justice Department’s investigation looked at Binance’s program to detect and prevent money laundering and whether it allowed individuals in sanctioned countries, such as Iran and Russia, to trade with Americans on the exchange, the Journal previously reported.

A separate agreement would resolve a civil lawsuit filed against Binance and Zhao earlier this year by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, one of the U.S. regulators that has tried to police the freewheeling global market, the people said. The $4.3 billion that Binance would pay includes amounts to address the CFTC’s claims and those levelled by agencies of the Treasury Department.

The CFTC claimed that Binance for years didn’t have a program to prevent and detect terrorist financing and money laundering. It also said Binance gave Americans access to derivatives such as futures or swaps that can only be traded in the U.S. if they are offered on regulated platforms. Binance never registered with U.S. regulators, making its risky leveraged products off-limits to American traders, the CFTC said.

A CFTC spokesman declined to comment.

Zhao resides in the United Arab Emirates and had curtailed his travel this year. The United Arab Emirates doesn’t have a mutual extradition treaty with the U.S., although last year the countries signed a treaty that enhances law-enforcement evidence sharing.

The U.A.E. remained welcoming to crypto even as countries such as China and the U.S. have cracked down on the unregulated industry. Zhao’s status was a sticking point in negotiations between the government and Binance for months, according to people familiar with the talks.

—Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this article.


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”