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Changpeng Zhao Prison Sentence: How Does It Compare With Other Disgraced Billionaires? 

Last Updated May 1, 2024 11:29 AM
Shraddha Sharma
Last Updated May 1, 2024 11:29 AM
By Shraddha Sharma
Verified by Peter Henn

Key Takeaways

  • Zhao was found guilty of failing to implement an effective anti-money laundering framework in Binance.
  • The prosecution sought a three-year sentence for Zhao’s breaches, but the judge opted for just four months.
  • Violations under BSA can include fines and jail terms of up to five years. 

Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, founder and former CEO of crypto exchange Binance, has been sentenced to four months in prison for violating US money laundering laws. Judge Richard Jones issued the sentence in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, despite arguments for a longer sentence due to the severity of the violations.

Changpeng Zhao Goes to Jail for Four Months

Federal Judge Richard Jones sentenced Zhao in a Seattle court after the billionaire pleaded guilty to breaking US money laundering regulations.

 

The prosecution pushed for a three-year sentence, citing the extensive and significant impact of Zhao’s violations. However, the judge opted for a shorter duration. 

The court document said : Zhao willfully failed to implement an effective AML program as required by the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).”

The act’s primary purpose is to prevent financial institutions from being used as tools for laundering money and other financial crimes. The BSA orders financial institutions to keep detailed records and file reports for investigation.

Changpeng Zhao Accepts Guilt Under BSA

The court document explained that, because of Zhao’s decisions made by CZ, Binance handled money that came from illegal activities. Essentially, Binance allegedly helped move money that violated the government’s sanctions.

In CZ’s sentencing memorandum, the court document stated, “Mr. Zhao recognizes that his BSA violation is a serious offense and accepts full responsibility.”

However, the memo pleaded  that because of admission of guilt, a history of giving to charity and helping the community, and lack of prison sentence in a similar case, no jail time would be “just.” 

Billionaire Sentencing for Financial Crimes

Zhao admitted to charges raised by the US Department of Justice in November. He agreed  to step down from his role at Binance with the exchange paying pay $4b in charges.

Tre Lovell, a corporate law attorney in Los Angeles, explained to CNBC  that the government can only claim any restitution or fines that are directly imposed by the court in Zhao’s case; they cannot take Zhao’s overall assets or wealth.

Joe Lewis, who is ranked as the 355th richest person in the world with a fortune of $7.3b according  to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, was recently sentenced on insider trading charges. Interestingly, his conviction didn’t dent his net worth despite a $5m fine.

Apart from a fine, breaking the Bank Secrecy Act can lead to a punishment  of up to five years in prisonAlthough this is the maximum sentence that Congress sets, the judge decides the actual sentence, based on the specific details of the case.

In February, Arthur Hayes and Benjamin Delo, who started and ran a cryptocurrency exchange BitMEX, admitted to breaking BSA rules. Both Hayes and Delo agreed to each pay a $10 million fine.

At least 11 Billionaires Jailed

In March, FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried received a 25-year prison sentence for orchestrating a major financial fraud. The court ordered Bankman-Fried to give up $11 billion in assets following a month-long trial in Manhattan. However, his sentence came after a jury found him guilty of seven charges of fraud and conspiracy.

According to Forbes , at least 11 billionaires have been sentenced to prison. The list includes the white-collar convictions of Allen Stanford, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, Raj Rajaratnam, among others. Stanford is serving a 110-year sentence for a $7 billion Ponzi scheme and must pay nearly $6 billion in restitution, though many victims remain unpaid.

Oil moguls Khodorkovsky and Lebedev reportedly served 10 years for money laundering and embezzlement. 

Rajaratnam, involved in insider trading, served 11 years and received a fine. All of these criminals became former billionaires after the conviction. However, BSA violations alone may not lead to severe sentencing. 

Billionaires and Their Net Worth

The case against Changpeng Zhao shows that the US is taking non-compliance under financial regulations seriously. 

Fines and prison sentences are based on the discretion of the judge but it has not impacted billionaire CZ’s net worth like in some other cases. However, another crypto mogul conviction sets a significant precedent for how similar cases might be handled in the future.

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