Childhood Hunting Buddy Turns Financier for Duterte Drug War

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  • Veteran of 20 companies sets out plans for Finance Ministry
  • Sonny Dominguez helped bankroll President’s political career

Before his childhood friend Rodrigo Duterte decided to run for president of the Philippines, Carlos “Sonny” Dominguez used to spend his days hunting a white-tailed deer in Idaho and watching episodes of “Narcos” on Netflix.

Now, instead of following the escapades of narcotics kingpin Pablo Escobar on TV, he has a drug war at home to pay for. As Duterte’s finance minister since last year, it’s Dominguez’s job to ensure his old companion can afford to implement election promises to wipe out drug dealers and boost police pay, while cutting income tax and finding billions for infrastructure projects.

Carlos Dominguez

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

To raise the money, Dominguez is pushing for a package that will raise levies on automobiles and fuel to boost annual revenue ultimately by 162.5 billion pesos ($3.2 billion). Politicians want only the populist measures passed.

“You have to have an agenda, finish it, then go,” said Dominguez, who, like Duterte, is 71.

It’s a mantra that he’s repeated many times in a career that spans half a century and includes top jobs at some 20 companies, including banking, real estate, hotels, agriculture and mining. He was once at the helm of Philippine Airlines Inc., Philippine Associated Smelting and Refining Corp. and BPI Agricultural Bank before focusing on his own businesses.

Agriculture Minister

He ran the ministry of natural resources and then agriculture during Corazon Aquino’s presidency in the late 1980s. Dominguez said he had no desire to return to public service but agreed to do so after running the fundraising campaign for Duterte’s election bid.

Carlos Dominguez

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

“I didn’t expect to be asked. I’m an old tired horse,” Dominguez said in a Jan. 17 interview in his office overlooking Manila Bay, where a powerful spotting scope allows him a close-up view of the luxury boats at the yacht club and of “women sunbathing,” he jokes.

Dominguez is part of a close circle that Duterte admits is limited to his law school, college dorm mates in Manila and those from Davao, the city where he grew up.

Few are as close as Dominguez. In the 1950’s, their families lived in a middle-class downtown neighborhood of Davao City called Matina, their homes separated only by an empty lot. Dominguez said “Dut” was a rowdy boy, the family’s black sheep. For Duterte, Sonny is the friend who ate better food, dressed smarter and got higher grades.

“Even when we were kids, Carlos Dominguez had a fondness for money and that’s why he’s now the finance secretary,” Duterte told tycoons and major taxpayers on Feb. 6. “I chose him because he is my childhood friend and I trust him.”

Presidential Fundraiser

They were biking and basketball buddies and went to the same high school until Duterte got kicked out. And they shared a passion for hunting. Dominguez was given his first rifle before he was 10 and he and Dut would shoot at birds sitting on power lines. Dominguez still hunts, often with his sons, and his family has a house in Portland, Oregon, where he has won state shooting competitions.

Dominguez and Duterte in Manila on Feb. 21.

Photographer: Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg

Through the years, Dominguez helped bankroll Duterte’s political adventure, from his birth-control projects during the president’s two decades as mayor of Davao City, all the way to the May 2016 polls, without asking for anything in return, according to Duterte. He was a regular benefactor to the charity work of the president’s late mother, Soledad Duterte.

“He’s very focused, very driven, and very passionate with his ideas,” said Joey Leviste, a friend of Dominguez since they studied economics at Ateneo de Manila University in 1961. The finance minister has experience in running every aspect of a business, from managing operations to setting payrolls and meeting the bottom line, said Leviste, chairman of Oceanagold Philippines Inc., who once managed a copper smelter with Dominguez. “Sonny knows what he’s doing on the ground and not from a text book.”

Dominguez says the tax reforms he’s proposing are necessary to keep the Philippines’ credit rating above junk grade. Aside from funding Duterte’s drug war, Dominguez must finance $160 billion of infrastructure projects in the next five years to keep the Philippines among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Boosting revenue will be crucial to keeping the budget deficit from exceeding 3 percent of gross domestic product. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting a shortfall of 3 percent.

“I knew finance would be in very good hands because Sonny is very comfortable with numbers,” said Joey Bermudez, a banker who worked under Dominguez in Bank of the Philippine Islands’ agriculture unit during the early 1980s. “He’s a drill master who wants any execution to be flawless.”

Dominguez’s first banking job came when he was still in college. He took a summer job at Citibank N.A. and remembers being balled out one time by his manager for forgetting to log a 3,000-peso overdraft in the ledger. Once he graduated in the mid 1960s, the bank hired him.

Bermudez said when Dominguez joined client meetings in places like Laguna, south of Manila, and General Santos in Mindanao to chat with farmers and fishermen, he would be interested in the smallest details -- costs of fish pens, the price of cages.

Cyanide Spill

In the past two decades, Dominguez would emerge from semi-retirement every four years or so, usually to turn a company around. One of his most recent projects was in 2006, when he was appointed to try to rehabilitate the Rapu-Rapu gold, copper and silver mine after its operator had poisoned the local environment through cyanide spills.

Back in retirement, he would take out his gun. 

In the autumn of 2015, Dominguez spent 10 hours a day on a hill in Idaho, waiting for the chance to take a 325-yard shot to bag a male white-tailed stag to add to his collection in the Eagles Bar of his hotel in Davao. For five days he ignored the other deer that came well within his range.

“I really wanted to take as far a shot as I could,” Dominguez said. “Hunting is patience.”