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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s appointment of Craig Henrici as head of a state agency occurred so quietly that the agency’s staff thought Henrici was joking when he showed up for work, the executive director of The Arc Connecticut said Monday.

This month Malloy appointed Henrici, an attorney and the former Democratic mayor of Hamden, to replace recently retired James McGaughey, Executive Director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons With Disabilities.

The administration did not issue a press release to mark Henrici’s appointment, which Malloy spokesman Andrew Doba said is not unusual. But according to Leslie Simoes, executive director of The Arc Connecticut, the office’s staff did not get a memo either.

“Mr. Henrici actually walked into the Office of Protection and Advocacy and walked in the front door to the reception desk and said ‘I’m here. I’m the new executive director.’ And they didn’t know he was coming. The staff actually laughed. They thought it was a joke,” Simoes said.

The comments came during a Monday press conference in Hartford, where advocates for disabled people and political opponents of Malloy questioned the process that led to Henrici’s appointment to head an agency occasionally expected to take positions counter to the administration’s position.

“The process was, there was no process. Even the staff there didn’t know what was happening,” Simoes said in a phone interview afterward. “We just felt as a disability community that we were left in the dark about what was happening.”

Asked for comment, Malloy’s office responded with a statement from Jonathan Slifka, the governor’s liaison to the disability community.

“As a former public official, an attorney, and a father of a child with a developmental disability who has been a client of Department of Developmental Services, the newly-appointed executive director has the professional background and personal commitment necessary to be an effective, aggressive, and independent advocate for persons with disabilities — which is exactly what the governor expects him to be,” Slifka said.

Although the Office of Protection and Advocacy website does not include a biography of Henrici, his legal office website provides some details. In addition to being elected mayor of Hamden in 2005, he served a term as a state representative from 1997 to 1999.

As an attorney, Henrici specializes in real estate, personal injury, and municipal law among other areas, according to his website.

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Henrici’s appointment was first reported on the blog of Jonathan Pelto, a former Democratic lawmaker and vocal critic of Malloy. Pelto is collecting signatures to appear on the gubernatorial ballot in November as a third-party candidate.

At Monday’s press conference, he said he learned of the appointment when he was approached at a farmers’ market by a parent who had previously had contact with the Office of Protection and Advocacy. Pelto said Henrici’s appointment seemed political.

“By putting in a political appointee — or what would appear to be a political appointee — into a position where their job was actually at times to take on the administration if it became necessary, that’s something that’s a slippery slope that, up until now, we’ve tried to stay away from,” Pelto said.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, who represents Hamden, released a statement defending Henrici, whom he said he’s known for more than 20 years. Sharkey denounced Pelto and Sen. Joe Markley, a Southington Republican who also questioned the appointment during the press conference.

“Craig has walked in advocates’ shoes in support of a member of his own family for many years. Frankly, I’m disgusted that Senator Markley and Jonathan Pelto would try to use this as an opportunity to further their political ambitions,” Sharkey said.

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However, during the press conference, Cathy Ludlum, a Manchester resident with spinal muscular atrophy who advocates for disabled people, said she was concerned about whether Henrici was qualified to take on the “staggering responsibilities” of the office.

“Please understand that we harbor no ill feelings against Mr. Henrici specifically. Although neither I nor my colleagues in the disability community have ever heard of him before, perhaps he has a deep understanding . . . of the numerous threats and challenges people with disabilities face every day,” she said.

Simoes said she wants to see Henrici be a successful and said she felt badly about the reaction he received from the agency’s staff on his first day of work.

“We all want this to work, we want to support this new appointment, but it’s difficult when we felt sort of blindsided by it and don’t know his qualifications,” she said.