Just because we see it, doesn't mean that it's so. Makes this job kind of fun. <added>
This is one of those cases that, though Google is showing the hit counter backlinks, it does not mean they are being taken into consideration for PR or ranking purpose. As you say, "I have to say the site is fairly useful so it's not like the couldn't rank anyway for that term."
And Google does have a track record of leaving spamming looking stuff out there for everybody to see, though in most cases it has already discounted the techniques. That's why the "I see other sites doing it," argument can turn out being highly counter-productive.
Just because we see it, doesn't mean that it's so. Makes this job kind of fun.