Binance Founder Changpeng Zhao Agrees to Step Down, Plead Guilty
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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

By DAVE MICHAELS
Wed, Nov 22, 2023 8:47amGrey 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 leveled 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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The Embarrassment of Having to Explain Your ‘Monster’ Diamond Ring

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds make it cheaper to get engaged or upgrade to a bigger ring. But there are rocky moments.

By ALINA DIZIK
Mon, Dec 11, 2023 4 min

Wedding planner Sterling Boulet has some advice for brides-to-be regarding lab-grown diamonds, which cost a fraction of the natural ones.

“If you’re trying to get your man to propose, they’ll propose faster if you offer this as an option,” says Boulet, of Raleigh, N.C. Recently, she adds, a friend’s fiancé “thanked me the next three times I saw him” for telling him about the cheaper lab-made option.

Man-made diamonds are catching on, despite some lingering stigma. This year was the first time that sales of lab-made and natural mined loose diamonds, primarily used as center stones in engagement rings, were split evenly, according to data from Tenoris, a jewellery and diamond trend-analytics company.

The rise of lab-made stones, however, is bringing up quirks alongside the perks. Now that blingier engagement rings—above two or three carats—are more affordable, more people are dealing with the peculiarities of wearing rather large rocks.

An engagement ring made with a lab-grown diamond at Ada Diamonds in New York City. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Esther Hare, a 5-foot-11-inch former triathlete, sought out a 4.5-carat lab-made oval-shaped diamond to fit her larger hands as a part of her vow renewal in Hawaii last year. It was a far cry from the half-carat ring her husband proposed with more than 25 years ago and the 1.5-carat upgrade they purchased 10 years ago. Hare, 50, who lives in San Jose, Calif., and works in high tech, chose a $40,000 lab-made diamond because “it’s nuts” to have to spend $100,000 on a natural stone. “It had to be big—that was my vision,” she says.

But the size of the ring has made it less practical at times. She doesn’t wear it for athletic training and swaps in her wedding band instead. And she is careful to leave it at home when traveling. “A lot of times I won’t take it on vacation because it’s just a monster,” she says.

The average retail price for a one-carat lab-made loose diamond decreased to $1,426 this year from $3,039 in 2020, according to the Tenoris data. Similar-sized loose natural diamonds cost $5,426 this year, compared with $4,943 in 2020.

Lab-made diamonds have essentially the same chemical makeup as natural ones, and look the same, unless viewed through sophisticated equipment that gauges the characteristics of emitted light.

At Ritani, an online jewellery retailer, lab-made diamond sales make up about 70% of the diamonds sold, up from roughly 30% two years ago, says Juliet Gomes, head of customer service at the company, based in White Plains, N.Y.

Ritani sometimes records videos of the lab-diamonds pinging when exposed to a “diamond tester,” a tool that judges authenticity, to show customers that the man-made rocks behave the same as natural ones. We definitely have some deep conversations with them,” Gomes says.

Not all gem dealers are rolling with these stones.

Philadelphia jeweller Steven Singer only stocks the natural stuff in his store and is planning a February campaign to give about 1,000 one-carat lab-made diamonds away free to prove they are “worthless.” Anyone can sign up online and get one in the mail; even shipping is free. “I’m not selling Frankensteins that were built in a lab,” Singer says.

Some brides are turned off by the larger bling now allowed by the lower prices.When her now-husband proposed with a two-carat lab-grown engagement ring, Tiffany Buchert, 40, was excited about the prospect of marriage—but not about the size of the diamond, which she says struck her as “costume jewellery-ish.”

“I said yes in the moment, of course, I didn’t want it to be weird,” says the physician assistant from West Chester, Pa.

But within weeks, she says, she fessed up, telling her fiancé: “I think I hate this ring.”

The couple returned it and then bought a one-carat natural diamond for more than double the price.

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds have made it more affordable to get engaged. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Boulet, the wedding planner in Raleigh, got engaged herself, she was over the moon when her fiancé proposed with a 2.3 carat lab-made diamond ring. “It’s very shiny, we were almost worried it was too shiny and was going to look fake,” she says.

It doesn’t, which presents another issue—looking like someone who really shelled out for jewellery. Boulet will occasionally volunteer that her diamond ring came from a lab.

“I don’t want people to think I’m putting on airs, or trying to be flashier than I am,” she says.

For Daniel Teoh, a 36-year-old software engineer outside of Detroit, buying a cheaper lab-made diamond for his fiancée meant extra room in his $30,000 ring budget.

Instead of a bigger ring, he got her something they could both enjoy. During a walk while on an annual ski trip to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Teoh popped the question and handed his now-wife a handmade wooden box that included a 2.5-carat lab-made diamond ring—and a car key.

She put on the ring, celebrated with both of their sisters and a friend, who was the unofficial photographer of the happy event, and then they drove back to the house. There, she saw a 1965 Mustang GT coupe in Wimbledon white with red stripes and a bow on top.

Looking back, Teoh says, it was still the diamond that made the big first impression.

“It wasn’t until like 15 minutes later she was like ‘so, what’s with this key?’” he adds.

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