Opening arguments began yesterday in a federal civil trial in which two Drug Enforcement Administration agents are suing the Justice Department for reverse discrimination.

The agents, George W. Marthers III and Jude T. McKenna, allege that their former superiors, Dempsey Jones and Johnny Fisher, subjected them to a hostile work environment and then retaliated against them after they filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2002.

Marthers and McKenna are white; Jones and Fisher are black.

An attorney for the Justice Department told jurors the case was simply an old-fashioned workplace dispute between employees and managers and had nothing to do with race.

Defense lawyer Colin M. Cherico said Jones and Fisher ruffled feathers after they arrived in Philadelphia in December 2001 and initiated new dress codes and attendance policies, and required agents to account for their whereabouts at all time.

He said Marthers and McKenna were "problem agents" who were accustomed to "living the good life" and didn't like the new rules.

But plaintiffs' attorney Thomas G. Roth earlier told jurors that Jones and Fisher had a racial agenda, and, when the plaintiffs questioned it, they were repeatedly harassed.

McKenna, for example, headed the DEA's anti-drug education efforts here. Roth said Fisher told McKenna to focus all his activities on the inner city instead of the suburbs and the city, as he had been doing.

Marthers administered the DEA's informants' program.

Roth said Marthers was told by Fisher at their first meeting that he was on the "hot seat" and that Fisher tasked a black agent to spy on him.

Roth said Marthers and McKenna eventually became so stressed out that they had to leave in March 2002, and Jones later "detailed" them out of their posts. The pair were off the job for 16 and 18 months.

The DEA required both men to be evaluated by doctors and they were found to be unfit for duty. A subsequent reevaluation in 2003 cleared both to return to work.

Cherico said Marthers and McKenna received full pay and benefits while they were on leave and neither had been demoted or denied a promotion since returning to work.

Roth said that shortly after Marthers and McKenna filed a complaint with the EEOC in March 2002, Fisher retaliated by telling EEOC investigators that the men were malcontents and created phony "disciplinary counseling memoranda" to mislead investigators.

Marthers and McKenna are seeking $20 million in compensatory and punitive damages and restoration of their annual and sick leave.

The trial is expected to last less than a week. *