That same year the family sold off as much as $350,000 worth of assets in the South American oil giant known as Petrobras. They currently maintain a smaller investment in the company, which is half-owned by the Brazilian government. Still, the investments could prove problematic for other reasons: Petrobras, has been investigated for flouting the UN sanctions against Iran. In 2007, the energy conglomerate signed a $470 million contract to explore oil fields off the coast of Iran, according to the Iranian oil ministry’s news service.
Kerry’s energy interests extend further, the most recently available filings show, including at least $1 million in each of three Sustainable Technologies funds focusing on clean energy in Scandinavia. As secretary of state, Kerry could preside over decisions that would at least indirectly benefit such firms.
There is also a $500,000 to $1 million stake in PotashCorp, a Canadian fertilizer firm attempting to merge with Israel Chemicals Ltd., among the largest firms in Israel.
“There are ways in which you can address potential conflicts,” said a government ethics official involved in the process who was not authorized to speak publicly. He said the Kerrys “may be asked to divest a stock or recuse themselves from matters that could impact that particular company. They may have to take certain steps to avoid a conflict of interest.”
These strictures commonly come in the form of an ethics agreement that must be implemented within 30 days of taking office. Kerry is expected to go before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation later this month or in early February.
Preventing conflicts of interest is a perennial struggle for public accountability, said Arthur Applbaum, a professor of ethics and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“Financial conflicts of interest are ubiquitous, nearly unavoidable, and not in themselves wrong,” Applbaum said. “Harry Truman, to avoid conflict, owned only Treasury bonds. It was a noble attempt, but of course it did not eliminate all conflict: Presidents can influence interest rates and so the price of bonds.”
He said public disclosure of finances is often “sufficient to make a conflict of interest benign, because disclosure allows the press and the public to make their own judgments about the appropriateness of the conflict and subject the official’s actions to criticism.”
But more could be done, he said. “The legally required disclosures are woefully vague,” Applbaum said. “There is a good argument for requiring the financial affairs of public officials to be a completely open book.”
Holman said ideally Kerry could recuse himself from anything that might affect his family’s investments.
“But,” he said, “there would be so many that would be impractical.”